Interview Date: April 28, 2014
Interview Location: Los Angeles, CA
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Collection
Schley: It’s Stewart Schley for the Cable Center. I’m privileged to be hosting the second in two oral history interviews participated in by Evan Shapiro (participating being a very intended pun). Evan is the president of Participant Media and of Pivot. He last graced the Cable Center stage in 2007, I think, when you did an oral history that sort of brought us up to speed with your career path and where you were then. It’s still obviously archived on the Cable Center repository. So I thought, Evan—first of all, thanks for being with us. I’m supposed to announce the date. It’s April 28, 2014. We are in Los Angeles on the eve of the 2014 Cable Show.
Shapiro: It’s actually my birthday.
Schley: Happy birthday! Excellent. We’re not going to ask ages or dates.
Shapiro: I’m 23.
Schley: But anyway, let’s pick it up because when we left you—when the Cable Center left you and you had either been named or about to be named president and GM of IFC and Sundance Channel. Nothing was changing in the world of television except everything. Hulu was about to launch and there was a lot of disruption going on. Why don’t you just take the mike if you will and tell us, kind of take us back to ’07, talk about the landscape and what you were doing and how things were evolving.
Shapiro: About a year after, maybe a little less, after I last spoke to the Cable Center, I was working at a company which at the time was called Rainbow Media, which has evolved into a spunoff company called AMC Networks. We were about to purchase Sundance Channel from a bunch of partners—CBS, NBC. It was an interesting decision. We had the Independent Film Channel, we were buying what ostensibly was the other independent film channel. Both started within a year of each other, about thirteen years prior to that. The decision was to really try to do as much as we could to corner the market on an intelligent upscale smart television watcher who appreciated independent films, but also appreciated the artistry that went into the independent mind. The concept was to differentiate the brands. So by bringing them together, you could ensure that they weren’t competing for identical viewers. What we did was we turned IFC much more into a young men’s network. We re-branded it to something called “Always On, Slightly Off.” With Sundance, we really went towards a more adult 25-54 female viewer with some really good original non-fiction programming that was launching off the back of iconoclasts. Then we really moved the brands towards original programming very, very fast and with a lot of effort and investment. IFC in the ensuing couple of years launched a slew of original programming including a show with David Cross called “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Tom Margaret” and in the case of Sundance Channel, we launched a mini-series called “Carlos,” which actually wound up beating HBO for a Golden Globe.
So both channels were sent on their way towards distinct brands. Television branding was something that I had really studied and worked in a number of years leading up to that point, but it was there that really understanding the key elements of differentiating a brand on a spectrum became incredibly clear for me. Because when you sit two brands next to each other that have similar aspects, creating a true differentiation between the two was a fulltime job. And making sure that they didn’t cross into each other’s streams too much. There are a number of different reasons for that. We were just talking about this. One is the cable operator demands it. They don’t want a bunch of channels that look exactly alike. Even if the ratings are high, if they all look alike, nothing brings distinction or intrinsic value onto itself. The second is really from the consumer’s standpoint, it’s important to know that destinations that they find out there for programming especially with the proliferation of all these new platforms like Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and iTunes, there’s something recognizable in the brand that relates to them as an audience member.
So it was actually right around that time that I also started teaching at NYU, a management class in television management and industry as part of Stern. That’s really where nothing makes you wake up stupid everyday like standing in front of 70 or 80 college students who are all paying $50,000 or $60,000 to hear what you have to say because they’ll take you down. So it was then that I really started re-training my brain using them as a petri dish on how the future of television was going to take shape.
Schley: I think we’ll get to that because you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the youth of today and in fact programming an entire television brand for them. But go back to—there was this interesting coalescing of brands and there was some acquisition and merger activity in the cable digital programming pool. It’s almost like at that time, it feels to me like it was the second wave. We launched a lot of channels when digital opened up channel space and a lot of them were rushed to market, I think. So maybe the brand identity is more well-established. But do you think that’s a fair way to kind of describe the iteration or the maturing of the digital cable…
Shapiro: I think that what wound up happening was a lot of channel groups decided that they were going to launch brands as flanker brands or as extensions in order to take up real estate on the dial and also frankly to generate revenues through subscription and other advertising. I think what’s been borne out is that you can’t really program a channel and create a brand as a hobby. You have to really staff up each brand to the capacity of creating something of real value, both for the operator and for the audience member. A lot of the stress that comes in our industry comes from what I think the cable operator sees as, well, these conglomerates are forcing smaller channels on me in order to get the bigger channels. And that’s really where a great amount of the consternation comes from and I think that both the operators have been incredibly vocal about that. But I also think that a number of the larger programming groups have begun to realize that and you’ve seen, for example, NBC-Universal, Comcast, slim down its offerings and kind of really bolster its smaller brands, which I think is really incredibly intelligent and I think will create longterm value for them.
Schley: From a programming standpoint with what you were doing at IFC and Sundance, how did you guys make decisions about programs to pursue or to invest in both from a standpoint of brand integrity, but also you’ve got to have hits at some point. What was that process like at that time?
Shapiro: In the last ten years I’ve spent the vast majority of my time trying to focus on the audience first. So we did there a tremendous amount of research: a segmentation study, surveys, ethnographies—which I’m a big believer in and because a quantitative study is great. It gives you pure numbers. But when you can go here directly from the consumer’s mouth in the environment where they’re enjoying your product, that is incredibly telling. So it started with research there. At Sundance we did a very similar effort and then most recently, in the endeavor I’m in now, we did almost two years worth of research before we announced our programming slate and really got into it in a big way. It was the crystal ball—who knows how the future will come out—but it was the decision maker for us was there was a white space out there and there is a consumer that’s not necessarily being served by the programming options that are available. To me, it all starts with research. It all starts with getting to know what audience needs to be served because to be honest with you, the last thing America needs is another kind of bland adults 25-54 general entertainment network. We have a lot of those and you can hear consumers complaining. There’s actually too much to watch at some certain point.
High quality content will always win out, I believe, but understanding who you’re serving and what motivates them first, that’s where it always starts with me.
Schley: When I watch “Portlandia,” I always see you show up as the executive producer in the credit and I think we talked before and you really encouraged the development of the city of Portland as a character in that show, which obviously has resonated well.
Shapiro: My one big note on that show was, you know, we got pitched the show by Carrie and Fred, and by the folks at Broadway Video. Brilliant group. They wanted to do a sketch comedy show and they were going to shoot it in New York and they had shot the test stuff in Portland and I said—my one big note on that show; I really didn’t give any other notes on that show in the entire run that I worked on it—was: “I don’t understand why we need another sketch comedy show in New York. Portland is the character of distinction here. Just make Portland the main character.”
Schley: That is exactly what you were just talking about though, right? Stepping away from the tried and true and the bland maybe. That show’s interesting too because I think that some of their early work started out on the Internet.
Shapiro: “Thunder Ant” was what was pitched to us. Fred and Carrie had done it basically a hobby in the summer when Fred had breaks. He and Carrie were friends. She’s a very funny person. They decided to shoot these interesting little web videos in Portland and really what rung true for me and Dan Pasternak and Debbie DeMontreux and Jen Caserta was the weirdness of Portland. There’s two bookstore ladies, some of the other characters there—the bike messenger—they were all very distinct to Portland per se but also to places like Portland, like Austin and Silver Lake and Williamsburg. And that’s really what we were trying to capture but Portland personified it in a way that very few other places can. And anyone who’s ever been to Portland understands how much that show is a reflection of the people who live there and the mentality of the people who live there.
Schley: You talked about audience first and research. Did both of those precepts play a role in “Portlandia,” for instance?
Shapiro: What we found was the audience that we were serving already. So we had a growing audience on IFC. As we re-branded we did a tremendous amount of research and what we found was that they loved comedy, that a big part of what turns audiences on around independent film also can be seen in the more subversive comedy out there. So at that time we went out and got a lot of great classic subversive comedy like “Mr. Show” and “Larry Sanders,” Ben Stiller’s show, and we wanted to try to fill in the schedule with original programming that met that same mentality. So we actually at that time launched two shows: “The Onion News Network” and “Portlandia.” And we actually thought that “The Onion News Network” was going to be the big hit. It had ten million visitors on the Onion page/website and we thought that that was going to be the monster hit. It actually was the lead-in for the hour and then “Portlandia” came after. So yes, we actually were trying to fill a spoken need. They named shows specifically; “Arrested Development” being one of them which actually was running on the network. “Mr. Show” was another and a bunch of others. We wanted to find shows that fit that hunger. What wound up happening was the audience spoke. The Onion did pretty well but “Portlandia” became this cult hit. It really struck a nerve. And I think part of it was the city of Portland and how unique that landscape is. Part of it, I think, was hipster culture and the genius way that that creative team pokes fun at hipster culture while also loving it. It’s very strange. And that’s something we discussed early on as well.
Schley: It’s very respectful in a way.
Shapiro: Yes, yes. And people in Portland love the show. But lastly, I really have to applaud the creative genius of the director and showrunner on the show. His name is Jon Krisel, a young man who had had a baby during the production of the pilot and he’s like the third Beatle. There’s Fred and there’s Carrie but Jon really gives that show its imprimatur and gives it its filter. From the opening credits and the music that’s chosen there—just the fact that there are these characters that are like a Gary Larsen cartoon, which is a reference that many people under 30 won’t get, but there is this universe. You can see the characters even when they’re not in the foreground. You can see them running around in the background. That meta and kind of layered approach to sketch comedy really—you have to go back to “Monty Python” and some of the classic sketch. But even then this was a brand new voice out there. He edited the first season, I think, entirely on his own in his basement. It was really a labor of love and the three of them together really jelled and created what is I think still one of the most unique voices on television.
Schley: So Evan, as you’re developing breakthrough original content for television, all this stuff is going on in the background over Hulu’s launching and Google’s just paid $1.6 billion to buy this thing called YouTube, which we all sort of were puzzled at at the time, but did that worry you? What was your way of reckoning with this new environment?
Shapiro: First of all there are plenty of people in the television business who are far more successful than I am at both programming and running channels, many of whom I worked with at AMC Networks. So to say that I have any kind of all-knowing answers to this stuff is folly. That said, I’m very much a person who enjoys chaos, I think that change is important. Change is how I’ve built my entire career, helping create change but also jumping on change when it comes. And I believe that the change in the industry—if embraced—will only make the industry stronger. We released a piece of research today that shows that 18-34 year-olds watch as much television as they ever have. They’re just doing it on many different devices that are at times not being measured correctly. And in fact the streaming of video, of television, is not eroding the traditional television business, it’s actually enhancing it. The number one way that people in their teens and twenties watch television is still live when it’s on TV. They do binge watch, they do time shift, but what’s happened is they’re using that to catch up and then really because of social media, they feel that they have to be at that show when it’s on because it’s blowing up on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or GetGlue and I think we’re seeing a renaissance in live television viewing that I don’t know that anyone anticipated. I’m not saying I anticipated it but because I’ve been around this generation so much—I have two kids in this generation—I teach 70 kids a year at NYU in this generation. We do a tremendous amount of research on them. This generation does not want to—and no television viewers out there want to abandon television. But the value exchange has to be good and to me the opportunity was to create programming that created value around the pay TV ecosystem for this generation. And that’s really what I’m pursuing now in the new gig.
Schley: It’s that communal aspect of television which I grew up with. I’m older than you but I remember watching “Roots” and everybody watched “Roots,” right? I mean, everybody watched it. But we’ve sort of lost that. It felt like television is becoming maybe a more isolating experience.
Shapiro: What’s happened in 1972 the number one show on television was—do you know?
Shapiro: “All in the Family.”
Schley: Of course.
Shapiro: 67 million people every week watched “All in the Family.” Not the very special episode after the Super Bowl, but every single week Mom and Dad, Sis and Bro sat down on the couch at the same time and watched Meathead and Archie argue shit out. A lot got resolved because you’d see them argue it out and then the next day, the Meatheads and the Archies—I’m not saying that show helped them find common ground, but it certainly gave them a language. And really, mountains were moved in a great part because of shows like that. And “M*A*S*H,” because we shared them all together as a communal experience and realized things at the same time. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the abortion episode of “Maude,” a lot got solved because of TV. Frankly the coverage of the Vietnam War was the thing that probably ended that war.
Now two things have happened because of the fragmentation. This is because of time shift but it’s also because of the proliferation of programming brands on cable and on pay TV. Because of that, viewing has become fragmented. So 67 million people was the number one show. Now it’s rare when the number one show has 20 million. It’s rare when the top five or six shows combined have 60 million. The upside of that, the positive aspect of that is that as a storyteller, you can speak very specifically to an audience. Matt Weiner doesn’t have to create “Mad Men” for Mom and Dad and Sis and Bro. It’s for a very specific audience. “Portlandia” doesn’t need to service 60 million people at once. “Archer” doesn’t have to reach four quadrants in order to be successful. “Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is a very successful show that does two million people. Stephen Colbert is about to become the king of late night. He gets about a million, million-and-a-half people a night. So it’s really, as a storyteller and as a producer, there’s never been a better time because you don’t have to do huge numbers in order to be successful. You can make a very specific story for a very specific audience.
However: what’s also happened is this fragmentation has created these silos that you just mentioned. There is no meeting in the middle anymore. Fox viewers watch Fox, MSNBC viewers watch MSNBC, I’m not sure who’s watching CNN, and you have echo chambers being created. This cultural interloping that organically happened when there were only three television choices doesn’t really happen as much anymore and we don’t resolve things as a culture in the same organic way that we used to. That said, when you layer social media on top of it, what happens is there is a cultural interloping because of almost envy. I see that happening over there and jeez, they’re all talking about “Red Wedding” or they’re all talking about “Girls” or they’re all talking about “HitRecord,” which is a show we did. I might want to check that out. I’ll wait for it to get on a platform where it’s convenient for me to watch thirteen in a row so that I can decide. And you saw this happen—“Breaking Bad,” I think, is the best example. Here’s a show that was doing two million, three million people a week in its first few seasons. And then all of a sudden, in the last couple of years, it took on this huge momentum, mostly because everybody was telling everybody else over social media, you gotta watch this show, you gotta watch this show. The advent at the end of the series also helped create an urgency there, but if it wasn’t for things like Netflix, there’s whole audience members that wouldn’t have found that show. In the last episode, about eleven million people watch it, including my daughter, who sent me a picture of her and forty of her friends crammed into her dorm rec room to watch this show live when it was on TV. Now none of them were recorded in the Nielsen numbers and I’m sure there were dorms all across the country where the same thing was happening.
So technology is usually a solution. It’s rarely an issue unless you choose like the music industry did to make it one. So now the question is, how does this industry, how does pay TV—35 years ago, pay TV, cable, was the disruptive technology in television. We seeded that over the last 25 years. We’ve become the—
Schley: Willfully or did it just happen? Was it a consequence of economics?
Shapiro: Partly what happens in an industry is an entire industry can go blind in all the same way. So you can really ignore problems if the entire industry chooses to ignore them. The music industry is a brilliant example. The auto industry a couple of years ago was a brilliant example of that. I think that economics is one. The money is just too good from the pay TV environment. Secondarily, there is stasis and inertia. Why destroy one piece of your business in order to create a new one when this one is going so well? Lastly, it’s generational. I think you’re starting to see a bunch of leaders come into the industry who really believe in the future of pay TV. So much of what we talk about right now in this industry is about staving off decline. Preventing decline.
Schley: It’s the whole cord-cutting terminology.
Shapiro: What happened to growing a business? That’s what frustrates me when we get together as a group is, we stand up and cheer when pay TV doesn’t lose subscribers in a quarter. But there’s a million-and-a-half or more, far more than that, people graduating from college every single year. And if we’re not gaining them as subscribers, where are they going? There’s a great HBO ad out there right now that shows young people sitting on the couch of their parents’ house watching HBO and encouraging them to basically borrow their HBO logon from their parents and go watch it somewhere else. That’s great, but how about getting your own subscription? And how about the industry creates packages for that constituency that is of value to them, and that’s what the industry, I think, needs to start embracing is why does Netflix strike a chord so much with this consumer base? Sixty percent of people between the ages of 18-34 have a Netflix subscription or access to one. Not all of them pay for it.
We as an industry really need to create competitive products because cable TV and pay TV is a far better product than any of these OTT products. It’s much more satisfying, I can watch it when it’s in season, I can watch it with my friends, I know it’s always on, I can take it with me in many different places but we’re not necessarily adapting as a product, I think, as fast as we need to.
Schley: It’s interesting because in reading the clips in prep for this interview and talking to you now, you still consider yourself a cable guy, right? I mean, it seems like you still have a lot of affinity.
Shapiro: Yes, I think it’s the future of television.
Shapiro: Absolutely. I mean, there’s 105, 106 million pay TV subscribers in the United States. No one wants to cancel their television subscription. They feel they have to because they’re not getting the value out of it that’s necessary. Television is the most popular, the most liked, the most powerful media on the planet, including the Internet.
Schley: And Evan, when you say television, Hulu counts in that…or Netflix…?
Shapiro: If you’re watching TV in a square, to me you’re watching television no matter where it is. But Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime don’t exist without the pay TV ecosystem first. That’s where the backbone of television is coming from. Everything I’ve learned over the last ten years has proven to me that the incumbents in the television industry still hold all the cards. Whether we choose to play them or not is on us. And I really do think it’s the programmer that has to make the change, not the distributor. The distributor is providing a service to a customer base. The programmer has to get right with the fact that we may not have the same economy in this industry that we did twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years ago.
Schley: Let’s talk about the big move you made. First of all, just tell me about Participant Media and what was compelling about that opportunity for you?
Shapiro: So about three years ago, maybe a little bit longer, I was having a great time at AMC Networks. I was working on some great brands. There are great people there. It was a good job. And it was a job I probably could have done for the rest of my career. However, I do like change, I do understand that if you’re not changing, you’re beginning to die. That’s how I look at it. Especially when you get to be my age. And you know I was thinking about what was going to be, where did I want to be at 60? I started looking around at what I wanted to do. And to a certain extent, when you work at a place long enough, there are times where you get promoted past the things that you love to do. In my last job, I was spending a tremendous amount of time in windowless conference rooms with a bunch of executives talking about spreadsheets. And not that I don’t love a good spreadsheet and not that I don’t love windowless conference rooms like this one, but I was spending less and less time doing what I loved every single week. And I work really hard and if I was going to spend as much time as I do away from my family, I wanted to know that a) I was going to get to put my hands in the clay, and b) that I was actually going to be able to make a lasting impact both in the industry and in the culture. Those are two things that are incredibly important to me. It was an aha moment. I like to make change. And I have a long history of working on boards and with nonprofits. I actually came from originally from the nonprofit world, from the public theater, and so I started to look for things in the industry that might allow me to do that. Whether they were teaching at NYU or joining boards or really one of the things I was considering was starting my own business, a programming business. Through the course of that I got to meet and really spend some time with the people at Participant Media. Participant is a ten year-old company founded by Jeff Skoll, who was the first employee, the first president of eBay, who made billions of dollars doing that and then was one of the first signatories to the Giving Pledge. He decided to give away a good deal if not all of his fortune to make the world a better place. He founded the Skoll Group which is dedicated to making the world more sustainable and more peaceful, Skoll Global Forum, Skoll Global Threats and Participant Media. And the premise around Participant Media was that a story well told could help create change, that entertainment could actually inspire social change. They were a film studio exclusively up until about a few years ago.
Schley: Name a couple titles.
Shapiro: Oh, my gosh. “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Syriana,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Cove,” “Waiting for Superman,” “Food, Inc.,” “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Lincoln,” “The Help.” So really important films and by the way, all the highest quality. Even the films that were not necessarily financially successful, you can’t say enough about the quality that’s in every film that Participant makes. And they had been primarily or exclusively a film studio up until that point and Jeff really wanted to get into TV. He felt that TV was too powerful a platform to pass up and we got to discussing it and you know there are a lot of executives in this business who can do TV as good if not better than me. There are a lot of executives in the world and in media who can really do social change and action really, really well. But I actually have a nice little marriage of the two and that really came out of our conversations and we decided to partner up. They gave me a gig there. I was the first and only employee in the TV division almost exactly two years ago this week and now we have about 80 people in the television division. Since then we’ve bought two different channels, actually married them together and re-launched them as a new programming brand called Pivot. What convinced me to make the change was the mission of the company, a double bottom line company, which is something that I had really never even conceived was possible, but now you look around and there are a number of them out there. Tom _____________ is a good example of that, Warby Parker is another one of them. But Participant is really the exclusive one in the media industry and the idea that my bonus at the end of every year would be judged not just on the revenue that we generated but also on the change we made. That was perfect for me. And everybody who knows me—when they heard that that was the gig—all of them, my old bosses, said well, that’s like you made the job for yourself. I can’t say enough about how gratifying it is to go into work and have everybody kind of spin from that same hymnal every single week.
Schley: That said, it’s a big charge to start a new television…
Shapiro: From scratch, yes.
Schley: So I mean you’re the first employee, you sat at a desk, what did you do?
Shapiro: First I had to work on negotiating the purchase agreements of Documentary Channel from the owners and for Halogen from that owner and then work on building the business plan of combining them into one, moving the operations. One was in South Carolina, the other was in Nashville, moving them to Los Angeles and New York. Building out that infrastructure. There was very little. There was no traffic, there were all the little things—the scheduling…
Schley: The grinding minutiae of running a business.
Shapiro: But building something from the ground up is really gratifying work. I mean, it’s like raising a barn. Everyday you can see progress being made and you don’t get to do that very often. I’ve gotten to do a lot of things in this industry that not a lot of people get to do. Buy a channel, bring it in, integrate into a larger entity as we did at Sundance. Three-quarters of those types of things fail and the opportunity to do that there with all those resources was amazing. To be able to construct a brand-new television brand and business and operation from the ground up, hiring every employee, coming up with the audience, coming up with the brand, coming up with the programming with this great team that I’ve been able to assemble. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Schley: Evan, from an industry-structural standpoint, is it possible, would it have been possible for Pivot or is it possible for anybody else to start from scratch with a new building distribution cable market by cable market and satellite deal by satellite deal. Do you have to have that base?
Shapiro: No, I personally don’t see how the dollar spent can be returned as quickly as buying distribution. It’s kind of a charged phrase, but buying another band and turning it into something else. It’s happened; I mean, Revolt is doing it. There are a couple of others as well. But when you look across the spectrum at the channels that will actually survive and succeed, most of them started with a nice head start. In the case of Revolt even, their deal with Comcast was a huge advantage to them in the marketplace. In the case of Pivot, knowing that we had that base of about $40 million to start with, it just put us on the map in a way that we couldn’t have done if we were literally going hat in hand saying, please give us distribution.
Schley: So talk about the business of pay television today from your vantage point. How does Pivot make money?
Shapiro: Primarily it’s an advertising-based business. I mean, we do have very good deals with a bunch of cable affiliates and pay TV outlets like Dish and Direct. It’s a dual revenue stream but actually I see it as much more than dual. One of the great things that Netflix has offered is a new home video market. That’s a pretty powerful thing and when the DVD started dying, I think the industry thought, oh, my God, that’s a huge revenue stream that’s going to go away but EST through iTunes and _______ through the various players as long as you stay true to your cable affiliate agreements. It’s nice to know that those revenues are there. Foreign revenue has actually been a really nice thing for us in the first couple of years, being able to distribute content around the world. It also helps the other part of our double bottom line which is the mission reaching other territories. I do believe, however, that video is primarily going to be some combination of subscribed content. So I think that cable subscriptions, ______ subscriptions, those types of ongoing annuities will be one of the major drivers and the other is advertising. There is no better advertising media than television. Nothing comes even close. Reach certainly is a big part of that but the engagement. If you look at other viable forms of advertising out there in the world, there are things that work. But the thing that works best always is television. And that’s because there’s an emotional exchange between an audience and a storyteller that can’t be replicated in any other media.
Schley: Let’s talk about your audience target for Pivot. You’ve done a lot of research and thought a lot about this brood we call the Millennials. What are they all about and why do they need a television channel?
Shapiro: First of all, I actually prefer to refer to them as Generation Y. Millennials is really a packaging concept that came up at the end of the last century. Generation Y is—they get a lot of baggage, they get a lot of knocks by people who are my age and older who don’t really understand the motivations of this generation. This generation is the most digitally-native so they understand technology better than any generation that’s come before. They’re the most world-wise because of technology and they know more about their world and about their generation than any generation that’s come before them. But they’re also—because of two major events, which would be 9/11 and the Great Recession—much more concerned with the future of the planet. And that doesn’t just mean the environment although that’s a bit part of it, but it’s about society and about how we deal with each other—things like race, things like sexual preference, but also sustainability from a different standpoint which is the way cultures get along and conflict. So this generation is actually—I refer to them as the New Greatest Generation. They hold a lot in common with the Greatest Generation. Most notably, born into great privilege, very adept at technology, asked to save the world from problems they didn’t create. Not volunteer necessarily, always. The Greatest Generation we all love to sing their praises, and they saved the world from Fascism and many other problems, but they were drafted into service, they were called upon. We face the same type of circumstance now. We need this generation to save the planet from itself. Our generation’s pretty much fucked it up and we’ve handed them a whole lot of problems that they didn’t create that they now must solve. So what I really don’t understand is when older generations look at them as narcissistic, or navel-gazing, or self-entitled, I think it’s right for them to be a little bit selfish and wonder what’s going to happen to this planet that they’re going to have to live on.
That’s a big driver. That’s really why we decided to focus on this generation—is that they actually do care more than most.
Schley: A sense of purpose?
Shapiro: 90% of them through our research is passionate about at least one cause. We see that somewhere north of 40% or 50% is passionate about six or more causes. Again, technology really helps in that, though. It’s very easy to protest when protesting means changing your Facebook profile. By the way, that’s a viable form of protest now. Just ask the people who are pushing PIPA and SOPA. Just ask all the gay marriage advocates out there. So when you look at how social change is made now, which is often through these forms of social media, of course this generation is going to use that platform to create change.
The other aspect of it is their priorities are not exactly what the priorities of the previous generations are but they’re also not out of whack, either. They believe in family. In fact, they’re closer to their parents probably than any generation coming before. They care about having a job of purpose. 80% of them say they prefer to make less money to work at a company whose values they agree with. That’s very strange especially for someone from Gen X who’s all about the paycheck right out of college. So we’ve created a programming brand that we don’t think has been present for them. There are great shows out there that they enjoy that have purpose and take on issues.
Schley: From different places.
Shapiro: Yes. We air a couple of them ourselves: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Friday Night Lights,” etc., etc., but is there a home where a) their intelligence is going to be respected innately, where the faces on the screen, the people who are creating the content are from their generation. When you look at somebody like Meghan McCain or Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Josh Thomas, all of whom are on our network, they’re all of the generation and not just mouthpieces. They’re actually the creators of the show, the producers of the show, they’re the originators of the concept. That’s important. When you think about this generation, they created Facebook, they created Snapchat, they created Twitter. They can create things. We can give them power and good things can happen from it, but you have to trust in them and you have to give them something to respond to.
Schley: What do you want to be for them? I remember there was a time—there might have been a fleeting moment in my day when MTV was our thing. That is my channel. Somebody finally made me a television channel. Is that what you want to be for Gen Y?
Shapiro: Yes, we definitely want to reflect this generation in a very specific way which is we want to reflect the best parts of who they are back to them. But it goes back to calling them into service. We definitely believe that this channel is a clarion call. It’s time. Join. We’re not going to tell them what to do. We’ll give them various options and we do hundreds of different ways they can actually make change within their cultures and within their lives on a monthly basis. We give them a platform, our website called takepart.com, to take action there. But really what we want is to tell stories that inspire them to go out and make change on their own. Or to gather together in a community. And that’s really, I think, the big differentiator within this generation from previous ones is that there’s a sense of community there that is much larger and much stronger than ever before driven in good part because of technology.
Schley: I see these behaviors that you’re expressing in my kids. Well, yes, of course.
Shapiro: How old are your kids?
Schley: I’ve got one that’s 26 and one that’s 23.
Shapiro: Right. They’re right in the heart of it.
Schley: I’m so taken about what you said about “All in the Family” earlier in our conversation. And I feel like a lot of those principles about “maybe we can, maybe not shape opinion, but influence opinion a little bit.” Taking root in what you’re doing today, is that fair?
Shapiro: We want to give our viewers and this generation enough information to formulate their own opinion. There will be opinions expressed. When you do a live television show with Meghan McCain and Eddie Huang and Jacob Soboroff, opinions will be given. The opinions of the people on the show. Joe Gordon-Levitt has a tremendous number of really great ideas, especially about how to make television. You look at that show, which is the world’s first truly open source television show, that’s a very specific idea. But we never come out and say, well, this is the only way. This is meant to inspire conversation with you and your community about what you want to do now. If we can help, terrific. If you can go out and do it on your own, also great.
We’ve got a couple of really amazing new shows. One’s called “Human Resources” about this company called TerraCycle which was founded by a guy, Tom, who’s 31, out of his dorm room at Princeton, which is really the world’s leading company for up-cycling. They take trash and turn it into new products. That’s not what the show is about, though. The show is about what does it look like to work in a place where you believe in what they’re doing. It’s not always perfect. But it’s always interesting. And we’re doing another show about young entrepreneurs here in Fairfax, in the Fairfax region of Los Angeles, that are about primarily young people of color starting their own businesses, starting their own careers, many of whom they’re the first in their families to start a business. It’s taken for granted in a number of families in this country that, well, I’ll just do what my dad did. Or I’ll just do what my mom did. But that’s not always how it works out in many communities across this country. So we’re trying to be a reflection of what’s actually going on out there and to provide best practices and opportunities for the community to learn from each other on how to get shit done.
Schley: I have two more questions for you. One is I was interested in reading your bio and how you sort of kicked around and found your way into the media and communications business. And like everybody’s path, it’s not only your path.
Shapiro: A winding path.
Schley: What would a 23 year-old Evan Shapiro do today? Where would be your pursuit point? What would you say?
Shapiro: That’s a great question. That’s really a good question and I actually get asked that a lot. I think it really depends on who that Evan Shapiro is and what their interests are, but I think we’re about to go through a huge renaissance of independent television production in the United States. Nothing against the big studios at all, but there’s a lot of overhead there, there’s a lot of infrastructure, there’s a lot of things about those studios that don’t allow for adaptability or nimbleness. But there are some really terrific small production companies that are growing up here in the United States who are making the best shows on television. And certainly the most popular shows on television. That’s where I would push somebody who is looking to get into the business today would be to go and try to get a gig, whether it’s pushing a broom or answering the phones at an independent production company. That’s where I think the rubber is really hitting the road. I think that’s that where the great creativity is coming out of. We work non-exclusively but we work predominantly with small independently-run television production companies, run oftentimes by the artists themselves. That’s where some really great stuff is happening and I think a lot of the change in the industry, the cross-platform stuff, the brand integration stuff, the storytelling innovations—you look again, I have to go to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s show “HitRecord.” That show would never have survived at a major studio. It never would have gotten out of development, frankly. And he’ll tell you it probably wouldn’t have been able to be made the way it was made on any other network. But because he has this independent production company called HitRecord and he’s working with a brilliant independent producer, Brian Graden and because he came into a truly independent non-public company like Participant, it just jelled. And I’m proud of a lot of things in my career. That show is a difference-maker and it shows that television of the past doesn’t necessarily have to be the television of the future. It doesn’t abandon what’s great about television, it adapts what’s great about television into a new format. If I do nothing else at my time in Participant that’s the thing I’ll point to as, wow, we really made something special.
Schley: I mean it seems like that like in this world where some of the scarcity in positions are sort of gone and there’s more opportunity, I guess that’s reflected in what you’re talking about.
Shapiro: And frankly, you talk to people who run businesses now and the smart ones are inviting the young people in on day one to offer their ideas. They may not take the ideas but they’re listening to them. Those are the companies that will win, the companies that embrace this generation and really include them in their decision-making.
Schley: I want to ask you what’s the most fun about your job, but if there’s a subject we haven’t touched on, now’s the opportunity to riff about it.
Shapiro: I think the thing that’s most fun about my job are the people that I get to work with. This industry is very sexy, it attracts very smart, very energetic, very passionate people. But then you add that mission to it and suddenly the quality of people and quality of talent you attract, it’s remarkable. I don’t know that I was prepared for how much the Participant model was going to attract the best and brightest from the talent pool but from the executive pool as well. That’s stunning and it’s been really, really gratifying and just a ton of fun to just know that there’s a higher purpose than just ratings and dollars and the treadmill that we can so often get into in this business. Frankly, the television industry I actually do a lot with the Cable Center to help the industry recruit the best and the brightest into our talent pool. I think if we managed to shift our focus just enough to embrace change and embrace this new consumer, we will have no problems attracting the best and the brightest because it’s such fun to work in television. And if you can look towards the future and help use the platform to make change, we will get the best and the brightest. We will win, we will survive well into our next fifty or sixty years.
Schley: It’s easy to have a more optimistic view of not just cable television but kind of the world, talking to you.
Shapiro: And by the way, this generation gives you that optimism. When you spend enough time with people in their late teens, early twenties, early thirties, you can’t help—they understand the problems the world faces, but they definitely think there’s a bright future out for them and they’re going to be a part of making it happen.
Schley: Well, hopefully, we can check back in in another five or six years and see…
Shapiro: Hopefully I’ll still be working in the cable industry.
Schley: This has been great. Evan Shapiro, thank you so much for being a friend of the Cable Center and for sitting down with us today for the Cable Center’s oral history series.
END OF INTERVIEW