Matt Blank, Dennis Basso and the Story Behind Meghan McCain’s Latest TV Project

Last week,  it was all about authors and agents, and today it was television titans’ turn in the rotating cast of characters that is Wednesdays at Michael’s. Tonight when Liz Smith hosts her annual kick-off for her Literacy Partners’ initiative, the joint will be jumping with social types like Diane von Furstenberg (who, we hear, recently broke her shoulder skiing and is, no doubt, sporting a fashionable sling) and her Vespa loving hubby Barry Diller, Cynthia McFadden, Cornelia Guest, Calvin Trillin, Nan Talese and Gay Talese. We won’t be there to trade air kisses with the glitterati, because we’ll be chatting up our favorite Bravolebrities at their upfront party across town (Giggy, that means you!).

Today I was joined by Evan Shapiro, president of pivot (yes, with a lower case ‘p’) the new cable network targeting the all-important millennial audience  launched by Participant Media, the production company responsible for an impressive slate of projects, including An Inconvenient Truth, The Help and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Participant chairman and founder Jeff Skoll and CEO Jim Berk tapped Evan to spearhead the company’s expansion into television in May of last year. Prior to that, he had served as president of IFC and Sundance Channel where we was responsible for award-winning program, like the buzzed about Portlandia.

I could barely keep up with Evan, whose passion for his latest gig was evident from the moment he sat down. The incredibly youthful 45-year-old father of two teenage girls told me running pivot is his “dream job,” because he’s doing more than creating what he considers groundbreaking television. “Ten years ago I would have said my dream job would have been at NBC or CBS.  Today, it’s this job because we’re doing something that’s going to have an impact on the world.” Evan dismisses the notion of millennials as spoiled and entitled and instead compares them to ‘the greatest generation’ saying, “Like ‘the greatest generation,’ they have been handed a series of events not of their own making, and, post 9/11 and the Great Recession, they have a real sense of their place in the world and want to make a difference.”

Besides their devotion to doing good, says Evan, the millennials (defined as the coveted 18-34 demo, but Evan says the network is ‘reaching out’ to viewers as young as 15) are not watching television the way their parents do or did.  Earning their loyalty is criticial to the future of television. “If you’re under 30 you do not have a land line and about half of today’s college graduates are not signing up for pay television. They are watching on their way on their devices, and we’ve trained a generation to believe doing one thing at a time is not enough.” Television industry execs wedded to the idea that the status quo has not changed are headed for a rude awakening, he warns. “When people say that [pay TV] subscriptions are flat, that’s because people aren’t dying off in large numbers right now. If, over the next 15 years, 30 percent of the paid TV  eco-system erodes, that would represent the loss of $30 billion in subscription revenue and $40 billion in advertising revenue. What we do in the next five years is a lot more important than most people think.” There’s no point in resisting change, says Evan, because if you do, you’re dead. TV execs have gotta get with the program and embrace it. As he so eloquently put it, “My entire life has always been about f*****g with what already is.”

No grass is growing under Evan and his team as they leverage the unique distribution assets of Participant Media, whose purchase of  The Documentary Channel and Halogen TV from The Inspiration Networks, once combined and rebranded,  will reach an estimated 40 million subscribers through an agressive distribution system utilizing a variety of platforms in line with its mission to create television that inspires and accelerates social change. Keeping in mind that millennials have FOMO (fear of missing out), says Evan, Pivot will offer them a variety of ways of ways to watch. “I want to reach both pay television viewers and broadband believers. Pivot is the first network to reach 100 percent of Comcast viewers, Time Warner viewers, FIOS, AT&T customers. Pay TV customers can get us in a bundle and live on demand. Pivot isn’t the future of television —  it’s the present.”

Evan tells me he need not look too far for inspiration when it comes to developing original content for his new audience. His daughters often serve as a mini-focus group (although his wife forbids this avid Twitter user to talk about them on any social media platform) For the last four years, he’s taught “Television 101” to NYU undergrads and he says, “The words ‘nobody knows anything’ have never meant more than when you’re standing in front of 70 kids who are paying $60,000 for their education.” Likening the experience of preparing for his classes to “training for a triathalon,” Evan says, “Every week shit happens that you have to deal with, and it changes everything. It’s re-framed how I think about television and where the business is going.” He also engages the entire pivot team; everyone from executives to assistants are invited to weekly development meetings and the company’s own millennials weigh in on who and what they’d like to watch. One name on everyone’s list was Joseph Gordon-Levitt, says Evan. One of the big revelations to come out of the company’s group think sessions was learning how interested the desired audience was in Meghan McCain. “Millennials view her as an authentic person and respond to her outspokeness and transparency.” When pivot “focus grouped” McCain’s viability, respondents concurred.

It’s not surprising then that both Gordon-Levitt (who Evan calls “the Sid Caesar of his generation — If Lorne Michaels was starting out, he’d do with Joseph is doing”) and McCain both headline shows that will premiere in August when the network launches. Gordon-Levitt’s HitRECord on TV! is a re-imagining of the variety show and sounds promising. If the actor’s charming soft shoe routine (one of the few highlights from this year’s terribly tone deaf Oscar broadcast) is any indication of things to come, we’ll be tuning in. McCain will star in and executive produce Raising McCain, which she has described as a cross between Meet the Press and Jackass. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? When McCain first came to pivot with her pitch for a series, the concept was markedly different. “The temptation is to take your life and Bravo-ize it,” says Evan when it comes to boldface names pitching these types of shows. After several conversations, McCain’s show morphed into something else. McCain (as well as her famous father, Senator John McCain, and mother, Cindy McCain) are clearly pleased with the result. The former presidential candidate tweeted his approval recently, and Meghan told the audience at the network’s recent upfront that pivot execs “get her.” The one person who doesn’t, formerly relevant talking head, Tucker Carlson, better hope he doesn’t run into Evan any time soon. Recent sexist and offensive comments which appeared in Carlson’s The Daily Caller about McCain (which we are too sickened by to repeat here) were “disgusting and misogynistic” says Evan. “A guy in his position to have said the things he did should be ashamed of himself.”

The other intriguing offering among pivot’s six new series is TakePart Live, a live talk show which will air five nights a week. Evan told me they are currently holding auditions for the host spot and looking heavily on YouTube for candidates. The show will also feature a rotating roster of pivot personalities, including McCain and Gordon-Levitt. Pivot’s recently announced partnership with Rolling Stone will also feature prominently in the show’s programming, with the magazine’s contributors appearing on-air. There will also be three weeks of programming to coincide with three special issues about the millennial generation. I’m guessing Tucker Carlson will not be on the short list of guests.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Richard Strauss

2. Sotheby’s International Realty’s Eva Mohr with a lanky blonde gal who gets my vote as today’s best dressed power luncher for her sunny orange sheath. “I just couldn’t put on another pair of black tights,” she told me as she breezed by. We hear you. Spring, where art thou?

3. Jane Hartley

4. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman

5. Herb Siegel

6. The Imber Gang:” Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Michael Kramer and Andy Bergman

7.  Evan Shapiro and yours truly

8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia and a well-dressed young gent we didn’t get to meet (David doesn’t seem to know any fashion-impaired folks, come to think of it)

9. The Upper East Side’s favorite furrier Dennis Basso and social swan Cece Cord looking oh so chic in navy

11. Bob Friedman and  Steven Haft

12. Peter Price

14. Showtime’s Matt Blank and Ken Fisher. When I arrived in the dining room I went over for a quick chat with Matt who was quite a popular guy this past award season getting shout-outs from plenty of folks including Homeland star Claire Danes when she picked up her Emmy. Matt told me he is very excited about his network’s new slate of programming including Ray Donovan starring Liev Schreiber and Masters of Sex, a look at the lives of sex researchers Masters and Johnson. Michael Sheen (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) plays Masters and Lizzie Kaplan plays Johnson (“She’s going to be a big star”). Matt tells me he knew they had something at the first table read and after watching the first three episodes. Another new offering , the exceedingly well-timed Vatican directed by Ridley Scott and starring Kyle Chandler, is sure to get plenty of attention. “I wish I had it on the air now,” says Matt. Still, the contemporary thriller which chronicles of the behind the scenes goings on at the Vatican can’t help but make headlines when it premieres. When I asked Matt why he thinks A-list film actors are flocking to television like never before he told me, “They like the idea of doing 12 episodes and the freedom and the quality of shows on premium cable means a lot.” In the sports arena, 60 Minutes Sports and Floyd Mayweather’s Pay Per View deal with the network are both knock outs. “This should keep me at Michael’s for a while,” says Matt. Indeed.

15. Former CNN president Jon Klein

16. NBC’s Victor Garvey

81. Michael Braun

82. Susan Magrino (Loved the fab necklace!)

17.  Judy Price

18. Attorney Robert Barnett

19. Fashionista Diane Soloway

20. PMK*BNC Public Relations chairman and CEO Cindi Berger

21. Quest‘s Chris Meigher

22. BizBash‘s David Adler

23. Jon Needham and Fortune‘s Pattie Sellers

24. C3’s Amy Griggs Kliger, who was nice enough to introduce me to her client, nutritionist and author Stefanie Sacks. Stefanie tells me she has expanded her blog on healthy farm-to-table food to radio. She’s now on Hamptons’ NPR in partnership with Peconic Public Broadcasting with her deliciously titled show, “Stirring the Pot.”

25. PR maestro Tom Goodman and newsman Robert MacNeil

26. Bloomberg’s Manuela Hoelterhoff

27. Steve Tisch

28. Author Wednesday Martin

29. Todd Synder and Gilt Groupe founder Kevin Ryan

30. Howard Bragman, whose latest venture, the aptly named, is keeping him plenty busy these days

Faces in the crowd: Veranda EIC Dara Caponigro with interior designer Victoria Hagan

Please send comments and corrections to DianeClehane AT mediabistro Dot com and lunch at mediabistro DOT com.

@DianeClehane Diane Clehane is Adweek's weekly 'Lunch' columnist.
Publish date: April 3, 2013 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT