Universal Studio Group Chief Pearlena Igbokwe Talks Peak TV, Hollywood’s Glass Ceiling

·4 min read

Hollywood may be grappling with the volume of TV content being made these days for established and emerging streaming platforms, but Universal Studio Group boss Pearlena Igbokwe sees that surge in programming as only good news for TV lovers.

“Can there ever been too much TV? I don’t think so. Obviously all of us can’t watch everything. But the fact is there’s so much choice for everyone, you can find anything that you love, that you’re looking for, on television these days,” Igbokwe, the USG chairman, told the Banff World Media Festival during a keynote address on Monday.

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Of course, people only have so much time to watch TV as that competes with other digital media passions, like audio podcasts and gaming, and the demands of life itself, she warned. “That’s why if you’re making TV shows, you want to make shows that people are passionate about, so when people make decisions about what am I going to do with my time, hopefully it’s going to watch this thing that I love,” Igbokwe told Banff attendees.

She conceded studios, especially on the broadcast side, face pressures to reduce content expenditures as the streaming wars force up talent costs and subscribers weigh how many services to pay for. “We’re looking at everything and trying to be as smart and cost-efficient as possible,” Igbokwe said.

She added TV is a creative business and a balance in expenditures and risk-taking is required to prevail over the competition. “I don’t think we’re ever going to stop spending money to make TV shows,” Igbokwe said.

USG houses Universal Television, Universal Content Productions, Universal Television Alternative and International  Studios and has around 123 productions set up around the world currently. Igbokwe said the trend of the TV industry producing reboots of classic series to break through a cluttered TV landscape would continue, but that creators needed to bring a fresh vision if they wanted to resurrect a 1970s and 1980s show.

And something else she wants more of is women following her lead and coming into the industry to create TV. “I can’t do this job for too much longer. And what’s amazing is seeing the next generation of women and, for me, specifically Black women coming into the business. So I do hope there are other women coming and coming for me, to take my job, please,” she added with hopeful enthusiasm.

Igbokwe later recounted her own story, coming to the U.S. as a child from her native Nigeria and instantly watching American TV nonstop. But before landing her career at NBC and Showtime, the Universal Studio Group boss wasn’t certain doors would open.

“When I was younger and looked at the business, I thought to myself, ‘can I do this?’ Are there examples of people doing this?” Igbokwe recalled. An early inspiration for her was Debra Martin Chase, a producer with Courage Under Fire and a creator with Martin Chase Productions, which today is affiliated with Universal Television.

“When I came into the studio, she (Martin Chase) was one of the first people I went to make a deal with, because she was a role model for me. She may not have known that, but I get to work with her now,” Igbokwe said.

The USG chief also said she will keep bringing in new and diverse voices as storytellers. “Obviously for me, it’s a personal goal to bring into the Universal Studios Group, storytellers who haven’t had the opportunities in the past to tell the kinds of stories about people who haven’t been put forward,” Igbokwe said.

She pointed to Nita Manzoor’s Peacock comedy We Are Lady Parts, co-creator Sierra Ornelas’ Rutherford Falls or showrunner Jason Katims’ As We See It as milestones in the USG’s drive towards greater diversity and inclusion.

“TV is about entertainment. But I do think at times we have the power to also showcase people who haven’t normally been in the limelight and showcase those kinds of stories as well,” Igbokwe told the Banff audience.

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