The Genius Who Produces ‘Pure’ Television

A look at Embassy Row’s Michael Davies

For reasons that are not immediately apparent, the girl with the vodka tonic is taking pictures of the actress on the Embassy Row TV monitor, even though the real thing is, at this very moment, perched on a chair inside the studio that lies just on the other side of the wall. Every time she captures a shot with her iPhone, the girl glances at the palmed screen, and in the owl-inflected argot of her generation, lets out a little “Woot!” before walking over to show the latest photo to her two equally excitable friends.

It’s the Tuesday before Memorial Day weekend and we’re standing in the cramped control room of the Bravo chat show Watch What Happens Live, which is hosted by Andy Cohen, a St. Louisan who is perhaps the only surviving member of Generation X who can get away with tossing out the occasional “Woot!” of his own. The actress in question is Elisabeth Moss from AMC’s Mad Men; seated alongside her is Arrested Development’s mad matriarch, Jessica Walter.

What’s happening is, Cohen has Moss (for the uninitiated, she plays Peggy Olson on Matt Weiner’s celebrated angst-athon) on the hot seat for his “Plead the Fifth” segment, in which he grills guests with a series of questions that are only slightly less puerile than George Wayne’s Vanity Fair Q&As. Which is to say, he makes more sponsor-friendly inquiries into the state of other people’s genitals and, in this case at least, the intestinal fortitude of a certain widely reviled actor.

The deal with “Plead the Fifth” is that you can choose to not answer one of the three questions Cohen serves up, although no one ever seems to exercise the option. After the inevitable anatomical query about Moss’ co-star Jon Hamm and a softball about the Mad Men cast’s collective enthusiasm for booze, Cohen serves up a big, fat meatball: “What, besides eating too much sushi, caused Jeremy Piven to leave Speed-the-Plow?”

Moss tears the cover off the ball. “That’s a good one, that’s a very good one. I could go on and on,” she laughs, before sending the horsehide over the right-field porch of Cohen’s beloved Busch Stadium. “Being highly unprofessional.”

The audience hoots as Moss watches the ball sail into the upper deck. “It came out of nowhere,” she says. “He just didn’t come back one day. I saw him, like, a month later at the Golden Globes when he was supposed to be really sick.”

Sure, the incident in question occurred in 2008 and Piven later was absolved of a breach-of-contract suit by a professional arbiter, but Moss delivered the sort of riposte that seemed almost destined to go as viral as H1N1. The crowd goes wild.

Grinning as if Chelsea had just gone up 1-0 on Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, Michael Davies, the Englishman who runs Embassy Row and is the presiding genius who produces WWHL and dozens of other programs, appears delighted with what he sees. “This is as pure as television gets,” Davies says as the show slips into a commercial break.

Maintaining Momentum

If Watch What Happens Live is more or less the flagship program of Embassy Row (the show is telecast from the company’s office in not quite Tribeca, aka Hudson Square), it only represents a small fraction of Davies’ pop-culture obsessions. Take zombies, for instance. (As a fan of the England national football team, is it any wonder that Davies enjoys watching ambulatory corpses staggering around the countryside?) After closing out its second season on AMC in front of a broadcast-busting 5.16 million viewers and a 2.6 in the adults 18-49 demo, Talking Dead now stands as Embassy Row’s highest-rated series. A geeked-out post-mortem of TV’s top-rated scripted series, The Walking Dead, the Chris Hardwick-helmed gabfest earns a higher CPM than everything in its competitive set.

While WWHL and Talking Dead may be Nielsen outliers—since the year began, Cohen’s 11 p.m. show is beating all comers in delivery of women 18-49 and 25-54 demos, including E!’s Chelsea Lately, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and TBS’ Conan—Davies isn’t at all interested in coasting. In the past two weeks, Embassy Row, which is owned by Sony Pictures Television, has launched a pair of new series: the live chatter show Style Pop on NBCUniversal’s Style network and the personality-driven Sunday night interview show Stroumboulopoulos on CNN.

That said, perhaps the most anticipated new series in Embassy Row history may well be the special one-off sidecar that’s meant to ride alongside the final eight episodes of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Davies had but one host in mind when he pitched AMC on Talking Bad, and while the contracts have yet to be signed, he’s confident that Chris Hardwick will be present and accounted for when the show bows on Aug. 11. “We heavily intend for Chris to do Talking Bad,” Davies says. “We are having conversations with no one else.”

Another major opportunity for Embassy Row will reunite Davies with his old partner in crime, Regis Francis Xavier Philbin. The two first worked together when Davies served as executive producer of ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. A week after Talking Bad bows, Embassy Row will take the wraps off Crowd Goes Wild, a daily drive-time (5 p.m.-6 p.m.) roundtable hosted by Philbin and a panel of jocks, journalists and other sports enthusiasts that will run on Fox Sports’ would-be rival to ESPN, FS1.

“When Fox told me that they’d made a deal with Regis, I thought, ‘My god, I’d love to produce that show,’” Davies recalls. “There’s definitely an emotional component to that, which is I care so much about the man I really want to make sure that this show is as successful as it possibly can be for him.”

Lest one imagine that Davies is an irredeemable softie, he makes it clear that he would very much like Crowd Goes Wild to make a sizeable dent in the marketplace. “There are lots of shows on television about sports but they’re either news shows like SportsCenter, or debate shows like Pardon the Interruption, or single point-of-view shows—Jim Rome, Michelle Beadle, Dan LeBatard,” Davies says. “What was missing, really, is a talk show that at its very core … takes what entertainment shows have done. And that’s not only covering content but creating content that makes it part of the conversation.”

Davies won’t say much about the particulars of the new FS1 series, although Fox Sports said that Crowd Goes Wild will be telecast from Silver Springs Studios in New York’s Chelsea Piers, a hulking sports complex that juts out into the Hudson River about a mile north of the Embassy Row offices.

“We’re going to have an enormous amount of fun,” Davies says. “It’s going to be live every single day and we’re going to create a lot of content. And we believe we’re going to make a lot of news ourselves, which is exactly the model that we go to on Watch What Happens Live.” As he says this, a roar comes up from the WWHL studio, a diorama that seats around 20 cocktail-sipping guests. Such is Cohen’s sway over WWHL fans that they cheer even when he’s just recording promos for upcoming episodes.

“The things that get said in this little studio here, they resonate in media the next day, in the world of pop culture,” Davies says, as the noise reaches a fever pitch. (Down the hall, Moss and Walter are taking their seats across from Cohen.) “We intend the same thing to happen in sports and across sports media.”

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 Style.com 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.”