HRTS Member Profile: Belisa Balaban
Belisa Balaban is Executive Vice President of Original Programming at Participant Media’s Pivot. I recently had a chance to interview Belisa to discuss talent, It Gets Better and the heart of the television business.
Q: Can you tell us about your background and what made you want to work in entertainment?
I grew up in New York where I was lucky to go see theater regularly - I read plays and studied dramaturgy, and eventually started directing in college. After graduating I had an internship at the Circle Repertory Company in New York. I loved supporting the playwrights and directors – it was a dream come true to be a part of that community. I went from there to casting, and that was what introduced me to television.
Over the course of my career, I've worked on a wide range of projects and genres from documentary to musical comedy; I've been a producer as well as an executive, and I can say that I truly love all of it. The technology changes, the business side changes, but telling stories, and helping others to tell stories that have an impact remains as exciting and gratifying as my first days in the theater. Whether I'm producing a documentary and learning about a new world by embedding myself and experiencing it from the inside, or working at a network at a time when the landscape is changing and we all have to figure out new ways to get our content seen, I love finding new ways to tell great stories.
Q: How did you first get involved with the HRTS?
I started attending HRTS events when I moved to LA from New York fifteen years ago. Being in those rooms felt like I had arrived in the heart of the television business. Coming from New York at that time, I didn’t have a personal perspective into the scope of the business. Coming to HRTS always exposed me to great insights and helped put what I was doing into a far broader context. And it still does!
Q: What is a favorite memory from your career thus far?
Being a part of the design and launch of Pivot has been one of the most creatively exciting and challenging things I’ve ever done. I’ve worked in quite a few start-up-type situations over the years, but this was work on a scale that overshadows everything else.
I love the Participant mission to create entertainment that can affect positive social change. It’s a unique opportunity to design programming that will have an impact beyond the industry. The chance to work on a directive like this also attracts an incredibly talented group of people, and I’m lucky that the group I’m working with now is one of the best and tightest teams I’ve ever been a part of.
Q: What do you look for when developing a new show?
Complex characters and setting, in a world you want to spend time exploring, but a relatively simple, clear premise that sets action in motion.
Also, whether it’s scripted or unscripted, for me any great project starts with the talent. Do I want to spend time in the world that this writer can create? Do I want to spend time with the people this documentary will follow?
My boss at the WB, Jordan Levin, would always ask writers personal questions during a pitch, to see if there was a story hiding in there that they would actually rather be pitching. It was a great lesson because it often yielded even stronger ideas that came from personal experience. I always want to know, 'why does this writer/producer want to tell this story?' I want to know that I am getting a combination of talent and idea that is going to create something unique and something that can last.
Q: When developing new material at what point do you sense that you might have a hit?
I know I am working on something special when it feels easy: ideas flow and build on each other, when I find myself looking forward to reading or watching it for the umpteenth time.
But knowing when a show is a hit is much harder. There are those projects that feel special in the way I just described that don’t connect with a big audience and there are shows that never feel easy that do connect.
Q: What are some of the keys to the ongoing success of Hit Record on TV?
There is always something new and unexpected in Hit Record on TV – even from one segment to the next. The concept and structure of the show invites everyone to experiment. It’s rare to see celebrities collaborating with this vast and diverse a community of mostly non-professional creators – audiences get to see them as artists willing to play for the joy of it.
The star of the show is the collective and the idea of group collaboration. And that group has composed and recorded brilliant music that you can’t get out of your head and films that are deeply touching. Ideas raised across each episode keep you thinking long after the show has aired.
Q: How are Millennials similar to or different from past generations of viewers?
I think at this point, we are all well aware that Millennials and generations after them have the expectation that they should be able to watch what they want, when they want. Millennials frequently note that when they are watching cable, it is mostly on the DVR. They also expect high quality options that resonate with their values and interests. Sharing what they watch on social media becomes another way to self-identify, get their news, and to connect with others who have common interests. In fact, with limited money and resources, Millennials see being informed and spreading the word on social media as forms of action. Those changes in viewing and sharing patterns affect all of us.
Q: How do you see the industry changing over the next few years?
I think that is something all of us are trying to figure out! It’s a time of uncertainty and possibility all at once. We may see increased consolidation of traditional distribution platforms as viewing patters change, and we all look for efficiencies. But we may also see technological and business innovations that ultimately expand the way audiences engage with those distributors.
I am personally very excited about how television is becoming increasingly global – it forces us to think about projects and deals differently. The way we finance projects and where we look for revenue is going to change because it has to, but television content is creatively stronger and more desired than ever, so it is actually a great time to ask consumers to support that content in new and evolving ways.
On the financial side, as an industry, we have to figure out how we track and monetize viewing as everything gets spread across platforms. We need to find new ways to calculate viewer engagement, and new ways to evaluate success. On the creative side, we need to protect the creative process in a time of company consolidation and vertical integration. We can’t allow business interests to outweigh creative without damaging the industry overall.
Q: Anything you would like to add?
Thank you so much for inviting me to share my experience and perspective here. It’s an honor!