The Genius Who Produces ‘Pure’ Television

A look at Embassy Row’s Michael Davies

ABC’s Breadwinner

If you’re an Englishman and your name isn’t Liam Gallagher, odds are pretty solid that you’re not particularly comfortable with talking up your own accomplishments. Davies is no exception, although it’s not difficult to find people in the business who think highly of him.

“One of the things I love about Michael is he’s got insanely great energy and he’s also a pop culture connoisseur in that he appreciates the art and beauty of it all,” says Joel Stillerman, AMC’s evp of original programming, production and digital content. “And then there’s the entrepreneurial side, where he can actually monetize all the great ideas he has. It’s a killer combo.”

A former agent who worked with Davies during his ABC stint (he served as evp, alternative series and specials from 1998 until he took the reins at Millionaire the following summer) says that the TV vet has so many good ideas, the network couldn’t keep up with him. “ABC had it in for him after he brought them The Man Show,” the agent says. “Jamie [Tarses, then head of ABC’s entertainment unit] was so put off by the pilot that she wanted to squeeze him out. Next thing you know, he’s bringing in Millionaire … and The Man Show went on to be a big hit for Comedy Central.”

If nothing else, ABC perhaps should consider installing a plaque in the lobby of its Burbank headquarters. Not only was Millionaire a runaway hit—the show went a long way toward enabling ABC to book a then-record $2.45 billion in the 2000-’01 upfront, up 44 percent from the previous year’s bazaar—but Davies is also responsible for introducing the network to its late-night scion.

“Michael did Win Ben Stein’s Money and The Man Show, both with Jimmy Kimmel,” the agent says. “He made the guy a TV star. If not for Michael Davies, ABC would still be running Ted Koppel in late night.”

One of the ways Davies stands out from the rest of the production pack is that he’s forever thinking about the realities of the television economy. To put it in the simplest terms, anyone who thinks that the legacy advertising model isn’t in mortal danger is trafficking in the most deliberate strain of self delusion.

“The decline in viewership during commercial breaks and the fact that how, even in a very successful show, very few people return after you go to commercial break is like a dirty little secret,” Davies says. “With so much content available in so many ways and with no commercial interruptions, we have raised a generation of viewers—and I’m not just talking about my kids, I’m talking about, you know, 40-year-olds; I mean, I don’t watch commercials anymore, and I understand that’s what supports my business—who are absolutely averse to sitting through the ads. That’s a problem.”

To that end, Davies is developing content with the advertising baked right in. “I’m constantly thinking about … how on earth I can figure out a way to keep people through commercials, or minimize the number of commercials that exist within it,” Davies says. “Right now, the best place to go and spend money is network and cable television. When media buyers get spooked, the brands are going to stop giving them those massive budgets. That’s when everything really, really changes.”

Embassy Row’s new fashion-forward chat show, Style Pop, takes on the ad-avoidance problem head-on. The June 6 premiere of the Style network series was loaded with product placements, demos and special offers designed to encourage viewers to interact with and keep their thumbs off the TV remote.

If the Style Pop experiment is relatively risk-free (per Nielsen, the channel in May averaged just 56,000 women 18-49), Davies’ willingness to tinker with the formula demonstrates his fiduciary savvy. “The ratings for [WWHL] are fantastic, but let’s be honest: the cost is a very important consideration,” he says. “The networks get to make expensive shows because they make some shows which are lower cost. Without reality television, nearly all of these networks would be broke.”

That unflinching honesty is one of the things that endears Davies to his network partners. “With Talking Dead, the brilliance of the idea is encapsulated in the title of that first show he did for Bravo,” Stillerman says. “‘Watch What Happens’­—those are some pretty powerful words. And when you consider how cost efficient these sort of shows really are—well, these are some pretty powerful ideas.”

Davies’ Legacy

Surrounded by a bunch of his personal effects, like a minor Pharaoh of a ruined tchotchke civilization propped up in a glittering tomb, Andy Cohen is gearing up for the second show of the night. (In order to accommodate Moss and Walter’s schedules and make allowances for the upcoming holiday, the WWHL team agrees to tape the appearance well in advance of the regular live show at 11 p.m. EDT.)

While the live show is a bit of a letdown when compared to the star-powered taping (the guests are media curiosities Ray J and Vinny Guadagnino), Davies is catholic in his approach to pop culture.

“Look, we’ve had Meryl Streep on the show. We’ve booked phenomenal people to be on this program,” he says. “Watch What Happens Live is a superb show, and it’s created this business for us, which has been really phenomenal.”

He’s about to head back to his office down the hall, but before he leaves the studio, Davies becomes reflective. “For a while, I thought my tombstone would read, ‘Michael Davies, Game Show Producer,’” he laughs. “But this show really kick started me back into the talk show business, which is really where I came from at the start of my career.

“You know, making hit shows is never easy. Millionaire was never easy for a second. It was the biggest struggle to persuade ABC to do that—and I was an insider,” Davies says. “There will be another network prime-time show in my future. But as was the case with Millionaire, which came from such an unconventional source—a British game show coming to the U.S. to go in prime time? With Regis Philbin hosting? Heresy!—I think the next hit will be completely unexpected in that same way. The concepts that tend to hit are the things that come from so far in left field and they come from platforms that you wouldn’t quite expect.”

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