HRTS Member Profile: Sharon Levy
Sharon Levy is Executive Vice President, Original Series and Animation at Spike TV. I recently had a chance to sit down with Sharon to discuss credibility, Comic Con and not being derivative.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and what made you want to work in TV?
-when I was in college, I interned as a Public Relations intern at an Albany theater called The Egg. At the same time, I also interned at what was then an NBC affiliate news station. Working two internships gave me the opportunity to experience both sides of it. I especially loved the news part of it; I thought I was going to be the next Christiane Amanpour – I even once remember running out in my pajamas to the scene of an accident to try and get a statement.
When I graduated and started looking for a job, I decided that I didn’t want to move to a small town somewhere. I loved Manhattan and I knew that to be a journalist I would have to start at the bottom - so I decided I would rather start at the bottom in Manhattan than anywhere else. That led me to Comedy Central, where I was an assistant to Gloria Banta, who ran development. It was a great experience as I had a really great view of the whole process from her desk. After that, I moved over to the Public Relations department at Comedy Central and worked for Tony Fox.
Through it all, it became clear that storytelling was my passion – so from there I jumped to producing, running development for a company called Stone Stanley Entertainment. I did that for five years before coming back to Viacom, where I went from being a producer to being an executive on the buying side in programming.
Q: What do you look for when developing a new show?
-I think every channel looks for something different. For Spike, what we look for is high stakes, authenticity and larger-than-life characters. It comes down to attitude and a bit of a swagger for Spike. It can’t be straightforward and it can’t be predictable. We’re attracted to characters that are slightly flawed in a great way, who make their way through the world, sometimes ending up on the right side, and sometimes on the wrong. We call it the Han Solo Effect, where we’re like “okay, I think he’d come back for us if we really needed him to save the day… well, maybe we’re not so sure, but it’s going to be really amusing getting there.” The last crucial point is credibility. Whoever we have on a show has to be the best at what they do, the most knowledgeable and the most credible.
Q: When did Comic-Con become a must-attend event?
-I worked for SciFi for a time back in New York (before it became SyFy), it was the Rod Perth era and I loved it. I’ve always been a huge science fiction fan, a huge horror fan, a huge comic fan. My husband’s comics take up half of our garage and they’re insured. I’ve been going to Comic Con for work or as a fan for a really long time now. I can’t pinpoint when it blew up, but now it is this behemoth of marketing. As long as the fans are still getting what they want out of it, then it’s good for everyone. It’s always important to pay attention to the fans and to avoid overstepping that line that makes something a complete sellout. Spike has embraced Comic Con and does a really great job of avoiding that line. DEADLIEST WARRIOR’s rabid fan base has so much crossover with the fans at Comic Con, that it just felt natural and obvious to do a panel for them this year.
Q: What are you doing in new media?
-anything you make for television these days, you have to be thinking of its potential to be multiplatform. It’s a very cliché and tired word, but it’s true. People are demanding content in different areas, so we’re always very cognizant of it. This year for DEADLIEST WARRIOR, we rolled out everything digitally - announcements, warriors, matchups - and that was really cool. We got massive feedback, especially on Facebook. I like the immediacy of social networking and the connection we’re able to make with the viewer; it’s very gratifying. It can also be helpful, but on the flip side, can be very hurtful. Just look at what Twitter does to movies. It used to be word of mouth, but now someone tweets, “this movie is terrible” and then 50 more people won’t go see it. That’s dangerous, but hopefully it’ll make everybody put forth their best work.
Q: Where do you want to be in five years?
-on a beach, so rich that I don’t have to work! Kauai, I would say. I honestly have no idea. In my life, people have given me jobs that I’m not qualified for on paper. This has happened every time I’ve made a career change - I’ve always gotten these insane jobs based on other people noticing how hard I work, how seriously I take it, and how I do this without crushing the people under me. I’m a natural leader and I get these great jobs. If I had mapped out my career, after college like they say you should, I don’t think I would be here. I’m a huge movie fan as a viewer so sometimes I think maybe movies, but then I think of how much I love television. I think I’ll always stay in entertainment; I love it and I’m always open to other parts of the entertainment business.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
-we all have to strive to be less derivative. While it’s the producers’ job to sell programming, it’s hard for them when all the channels start making the same programming, because it’s natural then for the producers to try and create shows to sell to multiple places. We should always strive to trailblaze, everyone always succeeds the most when they’re first. It doesn’t mean that everything has to be original from the bottom up, but you need your own spin on it and honestly look us in the eye and say “this belongs on your channel.” This is just something that I’ve been talking to producers about – we’ll all be more successful as long as we just strive to be original.