Universal TV's Bela Bajaria on the Battle for Ratings and What 'Truly Sucks' About the Business
This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If there's a moment when Bela Bajaria's south Asian ancestry reveals itself as an anomaly among Hollywood elite, it's when competition to stand out from the masses is at its fiercest: on the red carpet.
"My first year at the Emmys many years ago, I wore a dress -- this was before Slumdog Millionaire and the Indian resurgence in pop culture -- and my husband asked, 'Why don't you just wear a sari like you do for other occasions?' " says Bajaria, 41, relaxing on a Friday in mid-October on a comfy couch inside her decorative office on the Universal lot.
"I was like, 'Of course!' Saris are so much easier," she says, dressed similarly for comfort today in a flowy gray-blue blouse and black skirt. "My friends can't eat for three days before the show, but I'm comfortable all night. I love my motherland representation in those moments -- and it makes my mom very happy."
Bajaria, Hollywood's highest-ranking Indian-American, has further distinguished herself in the 15 months since NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt recruited Bajaria from her near-16-year tenure at CBS -- where she oversaw cable and miniseries programming -- by positioning NBC's sister studio as a competitor in the bloody battle for hit series.
Although her slate already has seen some casualties (among them NBC's Animal Practice and the network's Munsters remake debacle), Bajaria can count some bright spots in a brutal fall season that saw nearly a dozen primetime series axed before Thanksgiving.
Universal's Matthew Perry-starring NBC comedy Go On is the season's No. 1 new comedy among adults 18-to-49 and has helped to elevate the network's stature on Tuesday nights. Also, Fox's The Mindy Project (Universal's only current program to air on a network other than NBC) has won its time period opposite competition like ABC's Don't Trust the B-- in Apt. 23 and is the only new series on the network to receive a 24-episode order.
"I'm proud of those because [Go On creator] Scott Silveri and Mindy [Kaling] represent exactly what I look for in writers: unique voices," says Bajaria. "It can be a cop serial, a medical drama or romantic comedy. When a writer pitches us, it has to feel personal -- that the writer has somehow lived those stories."
Pausing to reflect on her busy year, she adds: "It's thrilling that we haven't had to sell anybody hard on, 'Look at us, we're the new supplier in town.' Getting Mindy on Fox sent exactly the right message: We will support your show and make sure it ends up at the right place."
If Bajaria comes across as a bit less jaded than the average exec, it's because she never imagined someone like her could be a tastemaker in a culture so starkly different from her own beginnings. Her parents were from the Kutch region of India, then raised in east Africa before moving to London in 1970, the year Bajaria was born. After owning a grocery store there, the family moved to Zambia for two years before making the dramatic move to Los Angeles when Bajaria was 8, settling in Palos Verdes and eventually owning car washes.
Unlike most first-generation south Asians she knew growing up, Bajaria wasn't forced to deny the lure of Western culture. "Yes, my parents were very involved in the Indian community, and there was a lot of cultural push-pull. It was like, 'Are you going to be a doctor or engineer?' My response was, 'How about neither?' " she says, laughing. "This Indian girl was going into entertainment! And my parents were too happy to be in America not to support me."