Susan Kouguell Interviews Russell Rothberg, Executive VP Drama Department Universal Television

I had the pleasure to speak with Russell Rothberg, Executive Vice President Drama Department at Universal Television about a wide range of topics, including breaking into television, pitching dos and don’ts,networking, and what his company is seeking. Rothberg shared his unique perspective; he has worked on both sides of the television aisle as a writer and an executive. His sensitivity towards the plight of writers was particularly insightful and generous.

Rothberg has developed Bates Motel for A&E, Chicago Fire, State of Affairs, Allegiance, Odyssey, and The Slap for NBC. Rothberg’s previous position was Senior Vice President, Drama Programming, NBC and Universal Media Studios (formerly Universal Television).  He joined NBC and Universal Media Studios in June 2009 and previously served as Vice President of Current Programming for Fox Broadcasting Company. At Fox from 2003-08, Rothberg oversaw such series as House, Bones, American Dad and The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Kouguell: Tell me about your career trajectory. You mentioned that you moved from New York City to Los Angeles 18 years ago because someone gave you the “practical advice that there were more writing jobs” there, and that you and your wife arrived with “no money, no connections or anything.” How did you break into the television world?

Rothberg: After working various jobs, I finally got a position as a writer’s assistant on the show Legacy. I wrote a script for them and got paid, which kind of saved my life, because not long after that the show got cancelled and I couldn’t get arrested. I then temped for USA Network in scripted series. One day an executive was on a phone call to writers, giving them notes and that’s when I realized these are the people who are on the other side of the phone and I thought I could do this job. I decided to assist in a place where there was room for growth and that was at Lifetime. I thought I’m going to bust my ass and make a name for myself and get a good reputation. And I did and I got promoted. Getting promoted was key because I could talk to a lot of agents. I really became an executive to get an agent and that kind of worked.

I’m of the opinion that you don’t have to be one thing your whole life. I’ve jumped back and forth from the executive side, to the writing side, to the executive side. One day I might go back to writing and producing. I think the world is your oyster and there are options. You have to be open to everything.

Kouguell: What types of projects is your company looking for?

Rothberg: We’re open to everything. We want projects with vision, writers that have a passion and a vision. We’re not a place that turns an apple into an orange. We don’t want to say, ‘That place is looking for this so if you could change this maybe we could sell it there.’

Kouguell: What projects are you currently working on?

Rothberg: We have our new show, The Path, on Hulu and a new show, Gypsy, that got picked up by Netflix for 10 episodes that will start shooting this summer.  We have Jennifer Lopez’s series, Shades of Blue, and we’re producingEmerald City— it’s a passion project, which is kind of like Game of Thrones in the world of Oz– it’s really big and beautiful and ambitious.

We have development just about everywhere at all the cable places and streaming. Our sister network is NBC, but we sell to all the other broadcast networks.