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HRTS President Profile: Bela Bajaria

Bela Bajaria

Bela Bajaria

Bela Bajaria is Executive Vice President, Universal Television, as well as the incoming President of the HRTS. I recently had a chance to sit down with Bela to discuss diversity, entrepreneurship and the future of the business.

Q: Can you tell us about your background and what made you want to work in entertainment?
-I moved here when I was 8 years old. I'm from London and have Indian immigrant parents, so it wasn't really a background of being a movie buff or being immersed in American pop culture in any way. For me it was that I really have an appreciation and admiration for writers. I always knew my skillset and that's putting many pieces together - to champion something, to see it happen. I love the idea of storytelling, but I have none of those skills as far as writing, directing or acting. I like television, where creative meets business - being with a group of people that have a story to tell and helping them to see that realized. That's why I got into the entertainment business.

Q: How did you first get involved with the HRTS?
-I started my career in the entertainment business at CBS in 1996. I worked in the TV movie department and back then there were three nights of movies. It was a lot of production, a very high volume. There would be the HRTS luncheons and when I first got to CBS I didn't make the cut as the top executives were getting invited first. It was fascinating to listen to those people - the leaders and trailblazers - speak about the business. I'm always interested in how the business has evolved and how it's changing. I vividly remember going to my first lunches, when I finally made the cut and was invited. It was enthralling to see the people that you read about, those that have really impacted change and have shaped so much of the business. To listen to them speak for an hour was an extraordinary education. It was thought-provoking and entertaining.

Q: What are some of the ways in which your experiences at CBS inform your decision-making today?
-I think a background of working in both longform and cable is very beneficial to my current job, and was a formative experience. The challenge on the TV-movie and cable side is that you can't go over budget. You don't have money to throw at problems. You have to be very disciplined about the approach and production. It's a very tight budget that teaches you great production and financial discipline, which is very important at a broadcast network.

By the time I left CBS I had overseen or worked on more than 150 movies. To have made that many and gone through that much development prep, production and post, you learn something from it. The other great experience I had, which I didn't realize until much later, was securing true-life rights, working with big authors and trying to get books and underlying materials. So having that skill set to work on things that are very timely and topical was instrumental.

I went to Leslie Moonves and Nancy Tellem and asked to start the cable studio. I like the entrepreneurial part of starting something and building it. I started the cable division and it was quite a valuable experience. I had done A&E's first scripted show, "The Cleaner" with Benjamin Bratt. So when I came to Universal TV, I had a relationship with them and we did "Bates Motel" on A&E. When you're in cable, to understand brands and what each network is doing is a necessity. That job was all about selling. Now to come to Universal with a bigger platform in terms of being able to sell to a broadcast network, it was very helpful to have that selling experience at the cable studio.

Q: Why should individuals and companies join the HRTS?
-HRTS is the organization for our own industry. People keep talking about how much things have changed so quickly in the last few years but also how it's the Golden Age of television. To be part of the discussion about trends and changing things in the business, and to listen to showrunners talk about their experiences, as well as a cross-section of people from studios and networks, is important. We're in our own world a lot of the time, so you want to be there and see the confluence of competitive heads of networks and studios. I think it's invaluable. You can network if you come 30 minutes early and walk around the room. It's a great place to return 10 phone calls. If you're curious and have any interest or knowledge of the business, it's a terrific place to come together.

Q: How do you see the next few years of our industry and the HRTS role in it?
-We've seen in this last couple of years that there are definitely more players in the business - more buyers, more content being made. In the digital space there's unscripted and scripted programming, and obviously there's the Amazons, Hulus and Netflixes that are looking to increase content. As more people come into the industry and as these discussions evolve and change, HRTS will always have a significant place in that. HRTS is still at the center of all those conversations by getting these people to come together.

Q: As incoming president, what is your vision for the HRTS?
-I'm really excited for the future of HRTS. It's something that I wanted to do and I'm very committed to making sure that the lunches are relevant and significant and as creative as they can be in giving people a different experience. I hope to create some surprises along the way, and really push out some of the more conventional panels. I'd like to see more diversity on the panels, and I mean that in every sense of the word. I'm really excited for the future and I think that this new board is very committed and energized to ensure that the HRTS and the lunches feel very topical. I want people to look forward to coming to them.

Q: The HRTS offers a mentoring program, what would you say to someone who is considering becoming a mentor?
-It's such a valuable experience. I think that, in many ways, the mentor gets as much out of it as the mentee does. I think it's important that we do connect and reach out to the next generation. It's invaluable for both. I know people have a lot on their plate and it feels like just one more thing to do, but there's such value in what you get out of it and what you learn.

Q: What advice would you give someone just starting out in the business?
-The advice that I would have given 10 years ago is the same advice that I would give today: I think people underestimate a good work ethic. If you work hard - not scheduling meetings where you don't even know who the people are or pushing paper from one place to another - you will feel engaged. You have to have an amazing work ethic and be a sponge in these jobs. You have to understand and soak in everything that's around you. I think that sometimes people get some of these first jobs and they get from point A to point B, but they don't understand what it means and how the pieces fit: how does a studio fit with a network, writer and producer? They don't really understand the flowchart because they're not engaging in the rest of it.

Q: Anything you would like to add?
-Recently it seems like there's a negative feeling about the business but I think that the TV industry is absolutely thriving. It is the Golden Age of TV, and with high-quality content being made there's great opportunity. I look forward to HRTS in the next couple of years because it's a really dynamic time in television. We're very fortunate to do what we do. I think that if there are challenges, there are opportunities.

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