If You Build It...
On the foundation of hit Schitt’s Creek, the president of Pop TV looks to build a comedy lineup for “modern grownups.”
When Brad Schwartz was brought in to rebrand the TV Guide Network (TVGN) in 2015, he saw an opportunity.
"With the world going into such a dark place, and with so much TV being very dark drama — be it Handmaid's Tale or American Horror Story — there was a place to be happy and joyous and not snarky," he says.
Five years later, Pop TV — as it's now known — is a comedy-driven cable channel that reaches more than 70 million homes and delivers on Schwartz's vision. Last year, its breakout series, Schitt's Creek, was nominated for four Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series.
"In today's era of peak TV, it's harder than ever to break through, and to be one of only 10 networks in history to have a best comedy nomination is pretty special," Schwartz says.
Shows like Schitt's Creek and the One Day at a Time reboot (which Pop picked up after Netflix dropped it) are key to reaching Schwartz's target of "modern grownups," viewers who grew up on the TV shows of the '80s and '90s.
Schitt's Creek, a Canadian sitcom about a wealthy couple who lose all their money, stars SCTV alumni Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, as well as Eugene's son, Dan Levy, who cocreated the series with his father.
The show "ticked off every box of what we wanted to do," Schwartz says.
He likens Schitt's Creek to Mad Men, calling them both groundbreaking shows that can transform a network. "Our job now," he says, "is to go on that AMC trajectory — like they did with Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead — and build off the one show that changed everything.
"We have worked very quickly to establish a brand where people know what to expect," Schwartz adds. "It's important for us to really define the emotional attachment that audiences have with us."
With a background that includes a stint at Saturday Night Live, Schwartz understands that all-important bond between audiences and their favorite shows. Born in Canada, he grew up in Toronto and attended the University of Pennsylvania and Wharton Business School.
Managing rock bands convinced him his talents lay in producing, and he broke into television in 1992 as Lorne Michaels's assistant on SNL. "Working for Lorne was like getting an MBA in live TV," Schwartz recalls.
He launched MTV in Canada, worked at CTV and was eventually recruited to run the New York–based Fuse network, "where we did Billy on the Street, discovered Amy Schumer and won a bunch of awards," he says. In 2013, he joined TVGN as president of entertainment and media.
As this issue went to press, however, changes resulting from the recent merger of Viacom and CBS came into play at Pop TV. The network's parent company, the new ViacomCBS, announced a desire to focus on its own intellectual property.
This meant pulling the plug on three scripted shows produced by outside studios: the sophomore ensemble comedy Florida Girls, the Anna Paquin–led Flack, which was set to begin its second season in March, and the comedy pilot Best Intentions, written by American Pie scribe Adam Herz.
The vast library of ViacomCBS has enabled Pop to air marathons of CBS shows like Love Island and Survivor. Scripted comedy, however, will remain the cornerstone, Schwartz maintains.
"We want to be in the same conversation as FX, AMC and the big premium entertainment channels," he says. "We're not there yet, but that's who we're going after. I don't think there's a network out there that's doing what we're doing."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2020
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