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Dana Walden and Jennifer Salke Talk ‘This Is Us,’ International TV Trends

Variety logo Variety 4/3/2017 Malina Saval
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Variety spoke with Dana Walden and Jennifer Salke, two of the most powerful women in television today, at the Keshet Media Group’s 2017 INTV conference. While the pair oversee competitors, Walden is chairman and CEO of Fox TV Group and Salke is president of NBC Entertainment, they are also longtime friends. And occasionally their business interests intersect, as on the breakout hit drama “This Is Us,” which is produced by 20th Century Fox Television but airs on NBC. The following are highlights from the separate conversations.

DANA WALDEN

Does the potential for a show’s international success play into Fox’s decision-making process when it comes to solidifying its slate of programming?

I would say we don’t really consider it at the network, but we do consider it at the studio as we’re developing shows and we have a great international distribution company and we’re in constant contact with them. We spend a lot of time with their team. And it’s not to say that we wouldn’t do a show that our international executives warned us against, and they’re very good about that. They know that for us to be the greatest possible home to creators we can’t limit our vision, because it doesn’t make economic sense in the present day. We will guide our partners away or toward areas that have more global appeal.

“This Is Us” hasn’t fared as well internationally as it has in the States, where it’s a ratings juggernaut. Same goes for “Empire.” Why do you think these shows haven’t done as well overseas as they have in America?

“This Is Us” has been marketed in many international markets, including Channel 4 in the U.K., and I’m not quite sure why it hasn’t performed as well as it did in the States. It really hit a nerve in the U.S. As for “Empire,” I think a hip-hop music label didn’t feel as relevant in other markets. I think a lot of it was driven by the market. But you can’t be overly picky about these things. We have the No. 1 show in broadcast in “Empire,” it sold really well to Hulu in the U.S. and our international buyers were really excited about it just based on the pilot. It’s hard to tell why something touches a zeitgeist and when that same show doesn’t in other places. “Lethal Weapon,” for example, is doing great. We don’t own the show, it’s Warner Bros., but I know it sold incredibly well because our international people were like, “I wish that was our show!” It’s just got that perfect mix of character stuff, action and humor.

Are there shows in development at Fox that you think will have major international appeal?

We have a lot of shows that will have global appeal. We’re doing our first show with Marvel that is a family show. We just cast Steven Moyer as the father. The father is a prosecutor who tries mutant crime, and it very clearly reveals itself to be a story of racism against people that are not like you. I think that will have a lot of appeal to our international buyers.

JENNIFER SALKE

You’ve said that certain people considered it a risk to take on such a character-driven drama like “This Is Us.”

I had calls from heads of other companies and they asked me, “How did you get behind this show? This took such courage.” But I really didn’t feel courageous doing it. I felt so lucky to have a script like that, because I felt that the landscape was so overflowing with, say, cop procedurals. I was like, “Uh, I don’t know if I’m going to watch all of these shows. Where’s the show for me?” And this was a show that I would watch.

With so much competition on TV these days, how do you break through to audiences?

This is the biggest dilemma that we face: how do you break through? [“This Is Us”] wouldn’t have succeeded the way it succeeded without the perfect moment at NBC where things were going well. We were able to start talking more about who’s actually watching these shows? And what we found out was that audiences aren’t actually shrinking. They’re growing in some situations, but the press [focuses] on the decline of everything. And then we all buy into it as an industry.

How did you know, what made you just believe, that “This Is Us” would be the hit that it is?

I know it sounds crazy, but when I got that pilot script for “This Is Us,” I said, “This is the kind of show that could be on the cover of Time magazine.” I knew. I had loved shows like “Thirtysomething” growing up, and I knew they weren’t on. Nobody developed those shows for so long because they weren’t seen as great pieces of international commerce. And you’re trained as a studio executive to build assets for your company. You need to have tendrils going out into the world, and if you have been raised in TV in the last 25 years you’re getting a clear message: “Don’t deliver me anything serialized. I’d love some action, I’d love some high stakes and I’d love a star.” When it came to “This Is Us,” it was mostly men who would say, “How could you go out on a limb like that? That took some balls.” I remember thinking, it did? Maybe it just took a vagina, because I just had this feeling that “This Is Us” was going to be magical. And it was.

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