Interview Date: Monday November 17, 2003
Interview Location: Los Angeles, CA
Interviewer: Janice Littlejohn
Collection: Hauser Collection
LITTLEJOHN: It’s November 19, 2003. This is Janice Littlejohn for The Cable Center. We are interviewing this afternoon Pearlena Igbokwe, Vice-President of Original Programming for Showtime Networks. Good afternoon.
IGBOKWE: Hi, how are you?
LITTLEJOHN: I’m fine, thank you. I wanted to first start from the beginning, where you were born and did television have any kind of influence on your upbringing and was it something that you always wanted to do?
IGBOKWE: Well, I was born in Nigeria and I came to American when I was 6 years old. Although I did speak some English when I got to the States, television was one of my biggest English teachers. I sat in front of the TV and I watched a lot of television because I really didn’t watch TV as a child in Nigeria so I was fascinated by television. My mother tells me I used to walk around the house quoting Bugs Bunny a lot. That’s one of the things I used to watch. So I did grow up as a lover of television and by the time I got to college knew that I wanted to work in this business in some way.
LITTLEJOHN: What was it about television that was intriguing to you? Were there particular programs that you really enjoyed watching?
IGBOKWE: I think the most fascinating thing about television for me was that it was in everybody’s home and everyone could watch it. It seemed to be a very democratic medium where it wasn’t the movie theater where you have to leave your house. It was a very comfortable thing that was in your home and to me that was really interesting. That you could bring messages and images into people’s living rooms.
LITTLEJOHN: What about your favorite programs? What were you watching?
IGBOKWE: As a kid?
IGBOKWE: I was a huge lover of black and white movies, classic movies. Loved them. Loved, loved, loved them. I don’t know, as a 12, 13 year old, just those Saturday afternoon old movies – I don’t know what it was about them, just maybe the grand scale, the melodrama, which is why I’m a big AMC fan myself, American Movie Classics. It’s strange, but that’s what I watched as a kid is old movies.
LITTLEJOHN: Were you into sitcoms? You mentioned Bugs Bunny, but were you into any kind of sitcoms?
IGBOKWE: I Love Lucy, and is still one of my favorite shows to this day. As a youngster I guess I watched whatever the popular shows of the day were.
LITTLEJOHN: What period would this be?
IGBOKWE: We’re talking ’70s, mid to late ’70s.
LITTLEJOHN: So in the era of Good Times and All in the Family and those kinds of shows.
IGBOKWE: Exactly. Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons. Oh – Love Boat and Fantasy Island on Saturday night – don’t call me! Not that anyone was at 12, but that was the best Saturday night – Love Boat followed by Fantasy Island.
LITTLEJOHN: So talk a little bit about how in college television became an interest, or how what you were studying in college led to your work in television.
IGBOKWE: I was an English major in college, and it was about reading literature and analyzing it, and I took some film courses and I found that it was a very similar thing. I would watch film and I would have to write about it and deconstruct it, and I loved that as well because film is like literature that’s just living. So I found I was able to combine my love of film, which I’d always had with my love of literature and be able to write about it and shape it. I said, “Okay, I think maybe there’s a living in this somewhere.” When I was in college, actually, I had done a summer program, a summer internship with NBC in New York and it was great and it was exciting, so by the time I finished college I said, “You know, I think I would very much like to be in this entertainment business in some way.”
LITTLEJOHN: So what were you doing at NBC? What kind of departments were you going into and did you hook up with any mentors there that really kind of helped shepherd you into a particular direction?
IGBOKWE: The program was called the Summer Associates Program at the time, and I’m not sure if it exists anymore, but the goal of it was to take college students and we all worked in different departments. At that time I worked in a sales/marketing department, and this is when NBC was riding high. It was Cosby and Cheers and all the big shows, and it was basically the department that created materials for the sales group to go out and talk about what a great place NBC is, and this is where you should be spending your advertising dollars and this is the programming that we’re doing. It was a two summer program and the second year I worked for the news division in news research and we worked on focus groups for the news and that was all very interesting to see how they determine who should be the anchors, and we looked at projects like does an ad in TV Guide correspond to an increase in viewership – all kinds of different things. For me it was kind of a great overview of the business because a lot of the other associates worked in… we were all in different departments so we got a chance to talk, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” Actually, I then further honed it down to I want to be in television as opposed to just entertainment. I wanted to be in television because it seemed a very exciting and immediate medium.
LITTLEJOHN: What was it specifically about television, though? Being in that atmosphere? It can be scary on some ends with it being so fast-paced and ratings driven and the whole mechanization of television. What was it that you thought, now this is something that I can really get into.
IGBOKWE: I think it was that, it was the fast-paced atmosphere that seemed more exciting. I mean, granted, I hadn’t been as exposed to the film industry at that point, but I hadn’t really thought about television, either. I found that you could make programming on television and it was the kind of thing that affected millions of people. Millions of people were watching NBC and millions of people were talking about the shows on NBC and isn’t that great to be a part of something like that that affects so many people.
LITTLEJOHN: Did you have any mentors there while you were at NBC that helped women or African-Americans or people in general that helped guide you or give you some perspective?
IGBOKWE: I didn’t have specific individual mentors but one of the things that I have just always done, given the opportunity I would spend all day in the offices of the people who I worked with, the people who actually worked there and just say, “What do you do? Tell me about this and tell me about that.” So I just made a point of hanging around a lot of people and getting a sense of what their life was like because that’s what I really wanted to know – so what is their life like in this business? At the time there were a lot of young, 30-something women who seemed to be on the rise and it seemed like a lot of opportunity for them in that business, and that also excited me, too, seeing that in New York City that there was this place where you can be creative and powerful and dress nicely.
LITTLEJOHN: You get to wear nice clothes! So you were at Yale and Columbia?
IGBOKWE: I went to Columbia Business School. When I graduated from Yale, of course I said I want to go into the entertainment business but those jobs weren’t just hanging around, so I actually worked for a financial services company for awhile and I said, yeah, okay, let me just take a job and get my feet wet out there and it was a great job in that it gave me a lot of autonomy and here I was this 21-year old in New York with an expense account thinking I was so amazing. But it was a great three years, but then I realized I really do want to be in entertainment because all of my interests even at that time were entertainment. The activities I did on the side were working with people who ran production companies or just people in the entertainment business. So I finally said I don’t want to be in financial services, I want to be in entertainment. Again, knowing that it was going to be a difficult transition I’d also known that I did always want to go to business school because I was an English major in college and I also wanted to make sure that I had a solid business background especially in those numbers related things. So I said, okay, this is a good time to do that and then hopefully coming out of business school I can make that transition. So I went to business school at Columbia. You know, Columbia being in New York and not here in California is obviously not the entertainment capital, but I tried to take courses that related to things I was interested in and it worked out for the best.
LITTLEJOHN: So where did you then go after business school?
IGBOKWE: I had taken off one semester to work for Ogilvie and Mather Advertising, and then my last semester at business school I fixed my schedule so that I could be in school part-time and I worked at HBO Research the other part of the time. That was a great experience – getting to know the cable business, yet another facet that I didn’t really know about.
LITTLEJOHN: And the cable business was kind of just coming into its own at that point?
IGBOKWE: Yeah, really, just in terms of the profile of the programming and so again, I said, “Wow! I didn’t think about the cable business!” So I talked to the people at HBO and I talked to some people at Showtime and there was a great opportunity opening up at Showtime that would allow me to use both my creative skills, my creative desires with my business skills, so it seemed to be a great fit and I actually started working for Showtime in New York in their marketing division in direct response television basically creating advertising for Showtime and also working with cable operators and coming up with media plans and marketing plans and strategies and all those kinds of things.
LITTLEJOHN: So what year was this that you joined Showtime?
IGBOKWE: I joined Showtime in 1992.
LITTLEJOHN: Wow! So you’re 11 years.
IGBOKWE: I can’t believe it myself. When they sent me the ten year letter congratulations I said, “Who are they talking about?” And it was me! But it doesn’t feel like that long because I spent four of those years in New York and the last five or six in LA, so it doesn’t feel like I’ve been at the same company.
LITTLEJOHN: What’s different about the New York vibe and the Los Angeles vibe?
IGBOKWE: New York is our corporate headquarters so the majority of our divisions are there – except for sales all our offices are there – and LA is the hub of programming. So there’s a different New York corporate feel versus this is all about programming. This is what we do is programming versus in New York people are focused on different things besides just the programming – the numbers, specific cable operators – so it’s a little bit of a different vibe.
LITTLEJOHN: So then how did you move into this vibe, this LA vibe, this programming vibe, and do you miss the other part? Or was this really where you wanted to be, in the programming end of things?
IGBOKWE: No, I definitely did want to be in the programming end of things and I always figured, you know, somehow you’ll make a way and you’ll get to where you ultimately want to be. My path is interesting. People say to me, “So you went to business school and now you’re in programming and development?” Well, what happened for me was I worked in marketing for a few years and at the time the chairman of Showtime, whose name was Tony Cox, had developed this job called the Director of Special Projects who worked directly for the chairman of the company. Essentially, if there was a job that didn’t belong in anyone else’s job description it was yours and you reported directly to the chairman and you worked on specific projects for him. It was a great overview of the company for me. Not only was the chairman my mentor – whenever I had a question I just went right to the top guy and he’d tell me – and I got to sit in on his staff meetings and learn what are the big guys talking about in terms of overall strategy and hearing how decisions are made and what is the company focused on. It was great. At the time, Tony was very involved in the cable industry’s response to the whole TV violence issue, so I worked very much on the cable industry’s anti-violence initiative called Voices Against Violence. I ended up at one point testifying at a Senate sub-committee hearing because Tony couldn’t make it and since I’d been so involved I was being quizzed by some senator about violence on television. It was just a great, great job that just allowed you to have a peek into all different aspects of the company including programming. I was one of those people that whenever a script came into the chairman to read I’d grab it and read it, and then when the head of programming – Jerry Offsay at the time – came to New York of course I had to give him my 2 cents about the projects – I’m sure he wanted that – and what Showtime was doing programmatically and here’s what I would do, and that kind of thing. After doing that job for a couple of years I knew I wanted to move into programming. I hadn’t developed programming before but those were some of the things I was doing on the side and I know that I certainly had the instincts for the kinds of things that we were trying to do. After some conversations with Jerry and preparing myself, I thought, for this job he called me one day and said, “Okay, well, I’ve got an opening out here in development. I think you’ve got the kind of instincts that I think would work out here. Do you want to come to LA?” So I packed up my bags and came to LA.
LITTLEJOHN: But that’s really a unique position to have been in to have really been able to work and network on a high level.
IGBOKWE: Absolutely. I feel very blessed that I had that experience because whenever I do tell people that story they go, “Wow!”
LITTLEJOHN: Right place, right time.
IGBOKWE: Exactly, and I say all that to also tell people that there’s no one path to how you get to what you do. I think, especially in this town, people get very regimented and people want to regiment you and they say, “Well, if you want to get to that place first you’ve got to work in the mail room and first you’ve got to work on the desk, and first…” and for a lot of people that’s what you do, that’s how you gain your training, but I also just say, you know, there may be other ways of getting to what you want to do and each position that you take, each job that you’re in there are lots of things to learn and then you figure out how to transfer those skills to some other area until you get to where you ultimately want to be.
LITTLEJOHN: So you pack up your bags and you come to Los Angeles – the land of sun and fun! What was the first project that you really got to develop and get off the ground and put on the air, if you remember?
IGBOKWE: I think the first real significant one for me was at the time we had really been talking about creating programs that really targeted the African-American audience as far as Showtime was concerned, and we’d been pitched a half-hour comedy and we were trying to make our way into the half-hour comedy world. It was a kind of socio-political comedy that we tried called Linc’s that was executive produced by Tim Reid and Susan Fales-Hill, and the point of the show was to be a show that really showed the spectrum of black people in this bar in Washington, from a political consultant to a waitress, and the kinds of conversations that this group of friends would have when other people weren’t around. It may have been politically incorrect, it may have been socially incorrect, all kinds of things. Pam Grier starred in it and we had a lot of great people starring in it. That was a show that Showtime also was very much involved in producing. Normally for our series we have another studio produce for us, but we were very involved in producing that show, so not only was there the creative development of that show, there was also the production. That was a huge effort. We produced that show in its first season at Tim Reid’s studio in Virginia and for a month I just moved to Virginia living in a hotel to make sure the show got off the ground. That was one of my big introductions to “Hello! You’re in this glamorous business called entertainment.”
LITTLEJOHN: I know when Linc’s first came out that there was a lot of talk about it not only from the fact that it was begin done in Virginia, but from the perspective that was being told. You had the star of the show – Steven…
IGBOKWE: Steven Williams, uh-huh.
LITTLEJOHN: Williams was this black republican and there were all these different kinds of people. I think Golden Brooks was kind of the hot single mom, and there was this whole kind of atmosphere around this show that “Wow! These are not black people that we get to see all the time.”
IGBOKWE: That we normally see on television, right.
LITTLEJOHN: Could you talk a little bit about the whole scope of the show and how different it was? Were audiences really ready for this kind of a show?
IGBOKWE: To answer your second questions – were they ready? I don’t know. Was it the show, was it the execution of the show? You can second-guess yourself. I’m sure every producer and network second-guesses themselves about shows. Why shows connect and why shows don’t connect. I don’t know what all the ingredients were that didn’t quite gel, but the scope of the show really was to introduce characters that some people thought didn’t exists, and that meant there are black republicans. The African-American community is sometimes very politically conservative or socially conservative, but that doesn’t seem to be the image that’s out there. Pam Grier played a lobbyist, a very successful lobbyist, and George Stanford-Brown the same.
LITTLEJOHN: And there was an African-American lesbian on… one of the characters had a lesbian daughter.
IGBOKWE: Exactly. So we were really trying to just show the scope of characters that weren’t portrayed on television, and these were intelligent people. Everyone didn’t have the same education level but they were people and they talked about things just like everyone else. I thought that was kind of the very radical thing about the show that these African-Americans were talking about politics, but having fun with it, too, and also just talking about things that everyone else talked about. I just remember when we read the first script from Susan Fales-Hill we couldn’t stop laughing. We just could not stop laughing because it was so hilariously funny. It was Link having to deal with the fact that his daughter might be a lesbian and he just couldn’t wrap his mind around it. So we were all really excited about the prospect of that, and again, as I say, when things don’t quite work you just say we think we had a really great idea and maybe it was just the execution of it as to why it didn’t work.
LITTLEJOHN: How does it make you feel personally, though, when you had something, this was your first baby and you had to get it on the air and you worked so hard, you moved to Virginia. When it was over was it something that you kick yourself about or do you just move on? How does it affect you personally?
IGBOKWE: No, you don’t kick yourself. We were on for two seasons and I think that everyone felt that just getting that show on the air was a huge feat. The fact that that show exists somewhere, in someone’s vaults somewhere on film, and I think everyone felt that we tried something that other people hadn’t tried or weren’t willing to try and I think that was really part of what Showtime really wanted to do as well. We try a lot of things and they’re not always successful. Sometimes it’s just about that you were able to be associated with something like that. I still look back on that experience and say I was involved in working on a show that was about breaking stereotypes and introducing different kinds of characters to people and I’m proud of that experience. You can’t win them all. I now work on a show called Soul Food, which has been on the air for four seasons and that show has connected. That makes you feel great as well that you’re working on a show that people really do feel is representative of their experience, “I’m so happy that that show is on,” but it was a similar strategy. It was presenting black people’s lives to show that they’re just regular people’s lives. They’re not that much different from anyone else’s. They do speak about politics and there is a wide range of socio-economic levels and people are not all the same. Maybe it was its execution. So I’ve been on both sides. Shows that try to do similar things and one worked and one maybe not as well.
LITTLEJOHN: Let’s talk a little about Soul Food because that was kind of a pet project for you, as well, something that you were very passionate about. It was first developed as a half-hour comedy for Fox Network and the Edmunds team really wanted it to be a drama.
IGBOKWE: As did George Tillman and Bob Teitel, the original producers of the movie. George, obviously, very close to this. Some of it was based loosely on his family, so they all definitely had issues about turning what was a heart-warming drama into a sitcom. There are certainly some great sitcoms, but I guess they were just concerned that there were a lot more things that this family and this project were trying to say then the ba-da-dum joke. This was actually right around the time where we were very much actively interested in developing an African-American family drama because we knew there was nothing like that on television. We knew that the Soul Food title was out there and it was successful in the movie theaters and it would have been great, but at the time they were working on the comedy. When that ultimately didn’t work, all the better for us. We pulled them in here and said, “We’d love to make this in the way that you would want to make it and in the same tone as the movie.” Ultimately they were happy to do that and we’re happy that they were happy to do that.
LITTLEJOHN: The interesting thing is that the industry was really looking at it because I think City of Angels was on at the time and so when that went south the idea was that this can never work. Does it give you a sense of accomplishment that it has worked and it has worked well?
LITTLEJOHN: It has to be just the best thing that Soul Food is the highest-rated series on the network. I’m wondering, just personally what that means to you, and professionally what that means to have such a success.
IGBOKWE: Personally and professionally it’s so rewarding because this is a show that people are rabid about. “Oh, that’s my show!” People feel so personally connected to it I sometimes think it’s a little scary, but thank God for those viewers! They just so connect with this family and these characters because they see themselves and their own relationships and not in a comedy setting, necessarily, and not in a setting that is just so tragic, which unfortunately we see a lot. It’s just normal. It’s just people trying to be a family, people loving each other, people sometimes yelling at each other, people sometimes not being so honest with each other, people being honest… It’s a really, I think for all of us who’ve worked on this show – for me, for the writers, for the actors who are just so embraced whenever they go anywhere – I think it’s really one of those unique experiences. I’m sure for other people who are on huge hit broadcast network shows where people recognize them anywhere that may be one kind of experience, but this is an experience where people feel, especially with the cast, that they know them intimately because they’ve wanted a show like this for so long. I think it’s rewarding, obviously, professionally to be working on a series that’s doing so well, but just personally you feel like it’s one of the few times where you make a small imprint on however many people. I think when it hits you that you’ve done that it’s really kind of amazing. That, to me, is one of the amazing things about television. You can make an imprint on someone’s life and you change the images that they see in their house.
LITTLEJOHN: What kinds of tangible responses are you getting from people? What kinds of fans are Soul Food fans?
IGBOKWE: They’re rabid fans. We have the Showtime website – they are the most active fans on the entire website. I don’t think Soul Food is even on the air on Showtime right now, but 10,000 hits a week. By far the most active – probably five times as many as the nearest active site. It’s a community! They have built a Soul Food community. There are regulars who come on talking to each other, they get together on Wednesday nights to watch the show, they talk every day to say “How’s it going?” We even had a couple that met on the website, they met in person, they got married and they had a baby. So the entire website has adopted them. That’s how personal this show has become for so many people. They’ve connected so fiercely.
LITTLEJOHN: This show about family is now creating new families.
IBGOKWE: Exactly! Creating new families! What’s interesting – as a group African-Americans were clearly not as represented on the web in as large numbers as other populations, but yet this is the most active group of people on this Showtime website, as I said, by five, six times as many hits as the nearest site, so it’s pretty incredible.
LITTLEJOHN: Because you don’t hear about fans… usually science fiction fans are like that.
IGBOKWE: Exactly, that rabid. These Soul Food fans, let them hear that a book is coming out, a DVD, there were rumors that the show was going to go away, you’re bombarded by phone calls and emails – “When’s the DVD coming out?” It’s great that they love the show so much. That’s the kind of show you just hope you could ever work on.
LITTLEJOHN: The show is getting ready to enter into its final season.
IGBOKWE: Into its fifth and final season. It’s been a great run, and that will start in February 2004.
LITTLEJOHN: I’m sure you’ll be inundated with “Why is this show going off the air?”
IGBOKWE: Already we have. I think, though, we’re coming into a season that’s going to be probably one of our best. We have some great, great stories. Obviously we had to go out with a bang. I don’t think that the viewers will be at all disappointed. You know, for me it’s bittersweet. Sure, it’d be great to continue to work on the show but you know what? It’s great to go out on a high note. I’d rather go out when people are saying, “Oh my God, I can’t believe the show’s leaving,” versus “That show should have gone a long time ago.” You know? That kind of thing. So we’ll go out with Friends and Sex and the City, still popular. It’s good to be remembered fondly, which I think we will be.
LITTLEJOHN: Let me ask you a little bit about the Black Filmmakers Showcase which is…
IGBOKWE: Going into its twelfth year here.
LITTLEJOHN: Yeah, it’s one of those programs that has been really well received by the public and I know I’ve talked to some people that have gone through the program. Tell me a little bit about it. Were you instrumental in bringing that to Showtime, or how did you actually work with that program?
IGBOKWE: The Black Filmmakers Showcase actually started when I was in New York and Showtime back in the early ’90s really embarked upon a strong diversity initiative throughout the company. One of the things that we thought was important was if we’re going to talk about diversity within the company we should also make sure it permeates what we do on screen. At that time the seedlings of the program was trying to encourage and support up and coming filmmakers and that was just having a reception for them and introducing them to the Showtime family, and eventually it became, well, if we really want to support filmmakers why don’t we put their works on air and help them make other shorts? By the time I got to LA, I really thought, okay, we really need to increase the profile of this because what a great opportunity for filmmakers. What I really tried to do was get us more piped in with local film festivals and film festivals around the country so that it was a way of getting the word out and we started doing receptions for the filmmakers, trying to give them more profile. So that’s a great program, too. When you call someone who made a short probably on their last dime, thought that no one would ever see it except their family and then you call and say, “We saw your short and we really liked it. We want to put it on Showtime so the whole country can see it.” It’s the one time where I feel like Ed McMahon because the people just go off on the phone – “Oh my God!” – they’re just screaming on the phone. It makes you feel good that gosh, with one phone call you can really just change someone’s day, so that’s been great.
LITTLEJOHN: Now, have any of those filmmakers been able to work on projects for Showtime since or how does that work, exactly?
IGBOKWE: The aim of the program is to try to give them the profile within the industry and the filmmakers we have are at different places. Some are much further along. Malcolm Lee, who directed The Best Man, had a short in our festival in the showcase and clearly he was further along as a filmmaker. He obviously went off to direct huge studio movies, and we have people who this may have been their very first film but we still feel that they have potential. So we don’t necessarily guarantee that hey, you’re going to direct one of our big movies, but we say we’re here to support, we’ll put your film on air, we’ll get your film out to producers around town, if you have ideas you want to come talk to us about we’re open, we want to teach you about how to navigate the network and studio system. It’s that not being an insider you don’t have information and what we’re trying to do is once people come into this program we’re trying to give them the access and information so they know how to navigate, or they can now go out and say my film has aired on Showtime. I think sometimes knowing that a film has gotten a national spotlight helps them in other things. We’ve had some people who have made films who are now writing big features, so it’s been great.
LITTLEJOHN: You’ve also been instrumental in real life projects that have come…
IGBOKWE: Some non-fiction.
LITTLEJOHN: Like the Bojangles project and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill…
IGBOKWE: Strange Justice, right, the true story.
LITTLEJOHN: Most recently the Jasper, Texas piece. You’ve done quite a few of those. Do you have an affinity for that kind of story, based on real life kind of inspired stories, or do you tend to gravitate between the real life based-ons and the fictionalized dramas?
IGBOKWE: I think the real life stories can be very impactful. When you show someone something that happened that in itself is amazing, and then when you can say this all happened, this all really happened… I think audiences are drawn to that as well. For the most part, we just haven’t as a company found as many fictional stories that we really thought could have the same kind of impact. You could do romantic comedies or action movies and those kinds of things; that really hasn’t been what we were trying to do. We were trying to do movies that had some impact in some way on audiences, on people who write about television, and I think we just found that in the true life story arena – not in a ripped from the headlines type of way, but in a way where this is a story that you look back on it with some perspective and you go this really holds some weight for all of us, it’s a timeless story. I think those are pretty amazing stories and when you see people who do things in certain kinds of situations and go that’s what people are capable of – either noble acts or really tragic horrible things, for example as in Jasper, Texas. That was a pretty amazing experience because we actually went to Jasper, we went to the homes of the family, went to the homes of the sheriff and the mayor and all the people in the town who had been involved in this drama that we put on the screen, and then when you go and see that they’re real people. They really did this. In the midst of this horrific, horrific crime they displayed the best of what human beings can be. So that was very affecting. We went to all the people involved in the film – the family and everyone else – and we went to their homes and we showed them the film to watch their reaction to it. There were still things that for some people they turned away because it was too many memories for them to watch. That was a very affecting moment for me having worked on this movie.
LITTLEJOHN: One of the things that’s interesting about Showtime in particular is kind of its old Hollywood system kind of format where people like a Gregory Hines can come and do a film and then he can direct a film. It seems that this has been – at least when Jerry Offsay was here – one of the things that Jerry was very cognizant of and very conscientious of doing. I’m wondering how that makes Showtime stand out say from a HBO or from other networks where there is this kind of revolving door where people come in and out and wear different hats throughout.
IGBOKWE: We like to call it the Showtime family. There are certainly a group of people who have worked with us many times either as actors or producers or directors, and Gregory was one of them. Lou Gossett was one of them. There are a number of people who enjoy their experience and we think they’re great, so why not work with them. If they’re talented, why not continue to work with them? Sometimes they come down the halls and say, “Hey! Hey!” because they know so many people after having worked on so many projects, so it was kind of a great thing.
LITTLEJOHN: So was it an experiment? Sometimes you don’t know if a Gregory Hines or a Lou Gossett or an Alan Arkin or someone can direct and act, as well.
IGBOKWE: Right. And Salma Hayek just made her directorial debut with us, as well.
LITTLEJOHN: Right, in the Maldonado Miracle.
LITTLEJOHN: How do you take chances on that? Is it one of those, “Okay, we’re going to do this and we’re going to bite our nails and hope that this comes through all right”?
IGBOKWE: Well, I think that there are some actors who definitely have that directing bug and they’ll let you know, and there are some who you’ll say to them, “Would you like to make your debut?” and they say no because they know it’s hard work, but for those who have the directing bug, those actors prepare themselves very, very hard because they don’t want to fail. For those who have said mentally, “I want to direct” you’re taking a good chance with them. You obviously are going to surround them with very strong people but Gregory and Salma… I mean, Salma is an amazing woman to begin with but you’re not going to catch her unprepared, and Gregory was the same way. So in some ways you’re taking a chance, but you’re taking a chance on people who are already driven to go do this thing so you give them the opportunity, they certainly don’t want to fail at it, and you surround them with people who are going to help them make really good decisions and we keep an eye on them and I think for the most part they turn out well.
LITTLEJOHN: In the years that you’ve been at Showtime, how have you seen the company change and grow, and in that same sense, how have you changed and grown in terms of what you are looking at and what you want to see?
IGBOKWE: Well, since I’ve been at Showtime I think the company has become much more focused on its programming, especially when Jerry came on-board programming was very much the focus. It was about making movies and making original movies and series that really helped to define us. Before that it was really acquisitions – movies from theatricals or we’d make maybe two or three a year and they were big event movies. So I’ve really seen our move to it’s all about the programming, and with so many networks out there now, it is all about the programming because people are looking for that show that really helps to identify and brand a network. I see that Showtime has really moved from a marketing company that was just about telling people to call to get Showtime just for movies to a much more programming oriented type of company.
LITTLEJOHN: So what actually brands, then, Showtime? What are the programs? We’ve got Soul Food, Queer…
IGBOKWE: Soul Food and Queer as Folk are two of the biggest shows. When you say those shows, people know those shows and they know that they can’t see them anywhere else. Our search is to find other shows that are going to elicit that same kind of reaction.
LITTLEJOHN: The L Word is coming on.
IGBOKWE: L Word is coming and we may, obviously, be putting on another show next year of things that we’re developing. Everyone’s looking for their Sopranos show. That’s a show that’s definitely become a part of the culture, and even with a small network like Bravo, they can do a show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and at the end of the day probably just a million people on Bravo see it, but you would think that everyone sees this show because they’re everywhere, but a show like that helped define a network. It’s about finding that show that catches the buzz. Even FX came out with Nip/Tuck. At the end of the day maybe just 3 million people see that show, but you would think that all of America sees that show. That’s the elusive challenge, to try to find those shows.
LITTLEJOHN: So what are you looking at and how have you grown with this company in terms of programming and developing particular shows?
IGBOKWE: I think for me I’ve become much more writer focused. I think my experiences have taught me that the difference between one person’s idea and another person’s idea is the person executing it. It’s about the writer and the vision of the writer and the producer. When you work with really great, creative people and then you work with people who are okay, you see the difference. So now I’m much more focused on I want someone who I just think is a really terrific writer because at least I have a better chance of ending up with really terrific product.
LITTLEJOHN: So where do you find…? Do you go to say Cosby showcases or things like that to go find…? I know that a lot of the networks are doing their own acting and writer and director/producer kind of programs or showcases and things like that. Are you out looking for that diamond in the rough kind of person? That new talent that you can tap into? Or are you looking in the existing Hollywood framework for talent?
IGBOKWE: I think it’s a little bit of both. You never know where you’re going to find the fresh voices and the raw talent. I think a lot of people don’t believe it, but really talented people emerge. They rise to the top. I know there are a lot of people walking around saying, “I’m super, super talented and no one knows it.” Because everyone is looking for talented people. You read a lot of mediocrity every day and when you find a script that you go, “Oh! That elicited something from me,” you remember that person, you bring that writer in, you want to work with those people, so I do think that talent does rise to the top. We’re now in a phase at Showtime where we’re making a lot fewer movies. We’re probably just going to be making six next year, airing six movies. I think we’re really trying to concentrate on the series. I think series, as we’re seeing, is where networks are able to really define themselves, ongoing series that people come back to on a week after week basis. Movies come, they’re a big event, and then they go. Two months later people have forgotten what the movie that you had on there was.
LITTLEJOHN: So it’s not cost effective in that regard?
IGBOKWE: I think in some ways no. You spend a lot of money on a huge movie, and yes, it gives you a lot of notoriety and awareness at that time, but I have yet to really hear of a huge movie event that people call up their cable operator to get a cable network just for that movie. Maybe some, but what people do make that phone call about is to watch a series because they want to be involved on that week-to-week basis with those characters that they love. I think that’s where you grab the audience.
LITTLEJOHN: Is cable, then, becoming like broadcast in terms of shows are really what are defining who this network is or what this network stands for?
IGBOKWE: I think so because there are so many cable networks now. I think it’s hard to brand yourself unless you have that show and people know instantly – “Oh, they’re that show!” It puts you on the map, at least. People have some sense of who you are and some sense of what you do. It does seem like it is about the shows. I think maybe when we were in a four, five, six network world, people watched networks. You left on NBC and you just watched it the whole night. We see even that doesn’t work anymore. You put a show on after Friends and people tune out. NBC’s had a hard time trying to find an 8:30 show for how many years. People, I think, with so many options, with their television and their VCR and their satellite dish and their DVD, people watch what they want to watch. I’ve got a satellite and cable. Look at all the shows on there! The thing about going into the digital world, with the digital box, you’re scrolling down and you’re not necessarily looking at the name of the abbreviated network on the side. When it says DSCLL, I don’t know what that means. I don’t know that means Discovery Learning Channel, you know what I’m saying? I just see the name of the show. I think in some ways with the proliferation of channels and the digital and the satellite, people just see a slot with a name in it, and especially if the networks are going to be abbreviating their name – who can remember 500 abbreviations – it really becomes about the show. Is that a show that I want to watch?
LITTLEJOHN: What about the Showtime video-on-demand technology? How does that play into the whole scheme of things and getting people to watch?
IGBOKWE: I think video-on-demand will lead to more usage, increased usage of television and cable. I think if people are allowed to watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it – it’s like programming your own network. Then you say, “Okay, I can sit down in one sitting and watch all of the episodes of this show that I missed, or I can watch all these movies that I wanted to see,” versus if that show is on Thursday at 10:00 and you’re not going to be home on Thursday at 10:00 you missed it, it’s over. So you just kind of write it off versus now you can actually consume more because you get to figure out when you’re going to consume it. It’s probably a very similar notion – maybe this is profane for me to say working in the cable industry – but to TiVo. TiVo’s the same thing. When people get to determine when they’re going to watch what they want to watch they tape all the episodes of their favorite show and in one Saturday afternoon go through all of the shows that they would have missed.
LITTLEJOHN: So then does developing series become more important now that people are looking to program their own…?
IGBOKWE: Their own network. Yeah! Absolutely! I definitely think that that technology is effecting what we’re developing and thinking about how people are going to be using it and how people are going to be watching TV and all those kinds of things.
LITTLEJOHN: What about the synergy, though, of being part of a Viacom company? I know that there’s a lovely brouhaha going on currently with The Reagans.
IGBOKWE: Haven’t heard anything about it.
LITTLEJOHN: It’s this little movie that is about Ronald Reagan…
IGBOKWE: And what’s the controversy?
LITTLEJOHN: That CBS somehow didn’t want to use it and now they’re bringing it to Showtime, and in that same regard Soul Food is now being syndicated to the Black Entertainment Television network. Is this kind of synergy good? Does it have its plusses and minuses?
IGBOKWE: Well, Soul Food being syndicated to BET is a matter of there was an outlet that wanted the show. I think if there was another outlet that wanted the show, I’m sure there would have been consideration but BET… given how much Viacom owns right now it’s hard not to run into a sister company, but I don’t know if that deal was made specifically with the synergy notion in mind, but I think BET, probably even before… if it hadn’t been part of the Viacom family it would have wanted that show. I think the CBS/Showtime and the Reagan situation, again, even if we hadn’t been within the same company it might have been a decision that we might have made to say “You don’t want to air that show? We can air it.” We’ve done that in the past with shows that weren’t from sister companies. A movie called Bastard Out of Carolina that was developed at TNT that they decided not to air for whatever reasons we brought on because we felt that we don’t have the advertiser issues and that was an extremely successful movie here on our network that wasn’t going to see the light of day. So I think it’s just a matter of if it’s a good decision, it’s a good decision. I don’t know if all these decisions are necessarily driven by the fact that we’re within the same family. I think if it’s outside of the family and it’s good business… I think it probably made the conversations more convenient that we were within the same family, but I’m not necessarily sure that these aren’t things that would have happened anyway.
LITTLEJOHN: So taking a look at your career thus far, what would you say has been your greatest achievement or things that you would like to feel are most memorable about you having been here at Showtime?
IGBOKWE: I hope that since I was a black development executive here at Showtime, the fact that the creative community felt that there was someone who would be receptive to their stories and would hopefully advocate for those stories to get made. I hope that that made a difference in terms of how people thought of Showtime and the kinds of projects we were able to do. I know my previous boss, Jerry Offsay, was very sensitive to making sure that we did these kinds of stories and I think that’s pretty amazing in itself that from the top there’s someone who thinks this is a priority that we should be telling stories about African-Americans because a good proportion of our audience is African-American, 25%, and so that made it easier for me that he believed that and he empowered me to go out and tell those stories and go out and find those stories. Similarly for the new Head of Entertainment, Bob Greenblatt, I think he appreciates that that’s a very important audience and I think is a fan of Soul Food already coming to the network. I hope that my accomplishment has been that I gave people a sense that they could come to Showtime and there was a chance that their story would get an airing.
LITTLEJOHN: Is there something to be said, though, about having minorities in executive positions such as this that it does allow for more diversity, as it’s been an issue the last four years about having diversity on television, both broadcast and cable. Is it important to have people of color, women, in positions of executive power?
IGBOKWE: I believe so. I believe everyone has a different makeup and a different sensitivity and different tastes, first of all. We all respond to different kinds of stories. I think the best kind of development slate is that diverse kind of slate. If you’ve got everyone who is very similar, has a very similar background so that they’re inclined to have similar tastes then a lot of the things you develop may all be very much the same. I think if you’ve got people who’ve had different experiences, who come at life from a different angle, they may be drawn to different kinds of subject matter. I think it’s a given – and I don’t think it reflects negatively or poorly, I think it’s just human nature – that people gravitate to people like themselves. That’s what we do, that’s what human beings do, and I think if you make a point of having different kinds of people they will pull in all different kinds of people. So I think it does make a difference. Again, I think it does help, though, when you have top executives who are sensitive to that issue to begin with and make it a priority to go out and seek different kinds of voices.
LITTLEJOHN: Are you seeing more women and minorities in these positions coming in?
IGBOKWE: I think that there probably are women and minorities in positions out there that we probably just don’t know about. I sometimes get surprised when I meet someone and they say they’re over at so-and-so company. “Really!? I didn’t know that you were over there.”
LITTLEJOHN: Just quietly working.
IGBOKWE: Yes, quietly working away, which I think is a great thing. It’s not like there are four and you know all four. That would be actually kind of sad. There are a lot of people out there doing lots of different things and people have their own impact in their own way. It’s not like every African-American executive is working on an African-American project. That’s certainly not the case. I think that would be diminishing my talent to say that that’s all I could do. I’ve done lots of other things as well, but I’m just saying I think it helps the diversity of development, and when I say diversity it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have shows about black people. It’s just tastes, just the kinds of stories that are being told when you’ve got different kinds of people out there looking for different kinds of things.
LITTLEJOHN: What keeps you at Showtime? You said you were surprised that the ten years had gone by and now it’s almost 13. Why do you still stay? What is that you are still…?
IGBOKWE: I enjoy the freedom of being a premium cable network where you can really tell a story as is. There’s not the we’ve got to break for commercial; there’s not the sensitivity to advertisers. There is here is a story and we can tell the story the way the story happened and with relatively few restrictions. That’s a blessing to be able to do that and be creative like that without the legal restrictions. Showtime, also, as an environment is a place that values people, values its employees, values diversity, values opinions, and doesn’t diminish your soul every day when you come to work unlike some other places that you hear about. So you have to appreciate those kinds of environments.
LITTLEJOHN: So where is Showtime going now? We talked about branding and we talked about series development, but where, as a company, do you see Showtime going in terms of its mark or its niche in the cable industry?
IGBOKWE: I think we’re still trying to be the place that does the kinds of projects other people won’t or can’t do. I think we’re still looking for that specific project, but also have a commercial appeal to it. I think perhaps in the past we’ve been accused of maybe not being so commercial, so I think we’re now trying to balance finding the really unique and individual stories but also stories that resonate with a larger part of the American public.
LITTLEJOHN: So Showtime was seen as more of the art house kind of network?
IGBOKWE: Perhaps. Smaller stories. Interesting stories, but not necessarily the most commercial stories, and we knew that. We knew we were the place where feature level talent could come make that passion story that wasn’t a big theatrical but it was perhaps a little too much for an advertiser supported network, and that was kind of a limbo stage. So I think we’re trying to take that same singularity of vision and say but there’s got to be a way to do it so that other people really can come in on it too.
LITTLEJOHN: So taking a step back and looking back at college years, was this what you envisioned when you were…?
IGBOKWE: Thought I would be doing? Yes, it is, oddly enough. It is. Being involved in creating television, yeah. At the point it crystallized for me, it is what I thought I’d be doing and I’ve done it and unlike a lot of people who can’t ever say that they accomplished what they wanted to, I feel like I have. So to be honest with you, if tomorrow I’m not in the business anymore I wouldn’t feel that I never did what I wanted to do in the business because I did.
LITTLEJOHN: In terms of just outside of the office, I’m sure your life does not revolve 24/7 around Showtime… or does it?
IGBOKWE: Well, that depends on which year you would have caught me. The year I was living in Virginia? That was a different story.
LITTLEJOHN: So what do you get to do? I understand you enjoy playing beach volleyball. Do you get to do that?
IGBOKWE: No. I mean, I’ve seen the beach. It’s been a while. I have a 17 month old daughter and between work, which can take a lot of your hours and then you want to get home and be a mom, it’s a little taxing. I think I get to the movies maybe every two months to see what’s going on in the movie theater.
LITTLEJOHN: So how does a television network executive then unwind and find time for herself?
IGBOKWE: When you interview the next exec let me know what she says. It’s difficult when you’re balancing a lot of things. You’re a wife, a mom, you have a job that demands you work a lot and you’re reading a lot at home and you’re looking at tapes. It’s not easy. You just try to not drive yourself crazy with trying to stay on top of everything.
LITTLEJOHN: So would you describe yourself as a woman who has it all?
IGBOKWE: It’s funny because someone asked me that a month or two ago and I said, “You know, I don’t think there’s such thing as having it all.” I think you have some and you make the best of what you have. You just decide what piece of that you want because having it all would mean that you can give 100% to work, 100% to family, 100% to this… I don’t think 300% really exists, you know? I think you can give percentages of yourself and I think you just have to find the balance of the 100 that makes you comfortable with what you’re giving to each part of your life.
LITTLEJOHN: My last question is kind of an open-ended one, I guess. Who’s been the most influential person to you in your career either at Showtime or outside of it?
IGBOKWE: You know, I think there have been a couple of people for me. At Showtime there were some executives that really I would say took a leap of faith and took a chance with me. The first was Tony Cox when he hired me to come be a Special Assistant, and then after Tony left Matt Blank became our chairman and I worked with Matt. We had a great working relationship and when I said to Matt one day that I’d love to go into programming he didn’t laugh in my face. He said, “Okay, you should go talk to Jerry” and gave me as much access and ability to work on projects as possible, which is great to have that kind of confidence. And then Jerry Offsay, who took that chance of bringing me to Los Angeles. I really do feel that I’ve been blessed by people who were willing to say, “I think she’s a good bet,” and take that chance. I feel very, very fortunate.
LITTLEJOHN: Anything else creatively? I know some executives do other projects or do creative ends of things. Has that ever been…?
IGBOKWE: You mean producing things on the set?
LITTLEJOHN: Yes, like producing or even filmmaking or anything like that?
IGBOKWE: You know, I’ve had screenwriting aspirations at different times and every once in a while I have ideas that run through my mind that I say, “One day I’m going to write that idea,” but you know, my thing of other things I’d like to do actually are outside of the TV industry. I guess as I’m getting older I’m becoming focused on home décor accessory kinds of things – beautiful little candles and things like that. So, any of those home style books, I’m there. Every once in a while I say, “Oh, I could design a beautiful candle and sell it somewhere and have a fabulous life designing candles.” So it’s just a different side of my creative energies. It’s interesting that that keeps emerging for me.
LITTLEJOHN: So home decorating. You’re nesting.
IGBOKWE: Exactly. It’s the oddest thing. I never would have thought that was me, but it’s the oddest thing.
LITTLEJOHN: Is there anything else that I haven’t talked about either about Showtime or something indicative or important about your career that you feel would be important?
IGBOKWE: Janice, I think you’ve covered it all.
LITTLEJOHN: Well, thank you very much. We’ve covered it all.
IGBOKWE: Thank you.