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Producer Bryce Zabel

Bryce Zabel's blog

From Bryce's former website (BryzeZabel.com, which was stolen):

Chairman/CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Bryce Zabel was elected only a month before the tragic events of September 11, 2001 forced the first postponement of the Emmy awards telecast in its fifty-three year history. Although Zabel was forced to postpone the telecast an even more unprecedented second time when the American air campaign against Afghanistan began, he determined that the show should still go on. It did, on November 4, 2001, in a demonstration of what he called “unity in the entertainment industry and defiance against the fears of terrorism.”

Zabel, the first writer/producer to hold the Academy’s top leadership position since his boyhood idol Rod Serling did so in the 1960s, works in both features and television, specializing in one-hour drama series. He has received the Writers Guild of America on-screen “created by” or “developed by” credit on five series -- E.N.G., Kay O’Brien, M.A.N.T.I.S., Dark Skies, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven. Rising from freelancer to Showrunner, responsible for entire productions from script to final network delivery, his other series work includes L.A. Law, Life Goes On and Lois and Clark. Of particular interest in an ever more competitive television market, his first two scripts both became TV series and every one of his produced pilots has actually been ordered to series production.

In the world of features and long-form, Bryce Zabel wrote the #1 box office feature, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and received shared story credit with his wife and fellow screenwriter, Jackie, on the latest Disney animated feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. He has sold or optioned three other spec scripts to studios which include Warner Brothers, Fox and Universal. He has had two TV movies produced.

Zabel began his career as a broadcast journalist in TV news, working as a general assignment reporter, anchorman, host and investigative reporter. He came to Los Angeles as a CNN correspondent, covering stories as wide-ranging as space shuttles and presidential campaigns. Later, he worked as an on-air investigative reporter for PBS, and as a director for several “reality” series, including the local powerhouse, Eye on L.A.

Twice nominated by the Writers Guild of America for outstanding screenwriting, Zabel’s work has also been nominated by the Mystery Writers of America, Environmental Media Association, Golden Mikes, and LA Area Emmy Awards. Zabel graduated from the University of Oregon with a BA in Broadcast Journalism. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, west, serving as the WGA spokesman during the 2001 contract negotiations.

From show promotions to speaking for the Academy, Zabel has appeared in a variety of media outlets –testing wits with Bill Mahrer on Politically Incorrect, chatting with Leeza Gibbons on her syndicated talk show, pulling an all-nighter fielding calls on the Art Bell radio show, defending the Emmys on the Today Show and hundreds of other interviews. He has been quoted in Time, USA Today, the New York Times, Washington Post, Hollywood Reporter, Daily Variety, Wall Street Journal and many other papers and magazines.

I spoke with Bryce by phone January 28, 2002. He ha[d] the best website (BryceZabel.com) of any producer I know.

Bryce: "Any website that is any good is under construction always..."

Luke: "How did you transition from CNN to working in Hollywood?"

Bryce: "I did not ever think that I would be where I am today. I thought I would just be a journalist. But when you're a television journalist, you fall into the rules of television. And that means shows get canceled and [employment] terms are limited. At CNN, there was a staff turnover [in 1981] and suddenly I found myself in Los Angeles looking for another television job. I managed to find one doing a 60 Minutes kind of job for PBS. And that was great. Then that show got canceled. I'm on the horns of the television beast. I was more involved in television than in journalism in terms of where you work next.

"So I asked myself, what's my desire? Do I stay in Los Angeles? I had met the woman who is now my wife [writer-producer Jackie Zabel]. I didn't want to movie. So I decided to modify what I was doing. I came to the conclusion that if I took another job as an anchor or reporter, I'd end up anchoring the news in Buffalo. And then anchoring the news in Indianapolis. So I changed what I wanted and I sought work in Hollywood. So instead of just going vertically from one place to another [in the TV news game], I moved horizontally to what was available on the horizon in Los Angeles.

"Ultimately, the woman I married [in 1984] said 'Have you ever written a screenplay?' I had never done it. I didn't even know what one looked like. We got one and I read it. And I said, 'this looks pretty easy. There aren't a lot of adjectives and adverbs in it. I can do this.' The first two things I wrote [in 1984] became TV series - E.N.G. [Electronic News Gathering, a 60-minute series about television news that ran in Canada from 1989-94] and Kay O'Brien."

Luke: "Is it difficult to stay married in Hollywood?"

Bryce: "I haven't had any problem. We've always been in the television/entertainment/news business and we've always complemented each other in our interests. It's probably hard to stay married as an actor in Hollywood."

Luke: "I was just reading the latest issues of Scientific American, which has a devastating cover story about TV Addiction. How do you feel about the medium?"

Bryce: "I'd love to read the article and respond. Anything in life can be abused. It's a wonderful thing to enjoy a glass of wine with a fine meal on a Saturday night. It's a different thing to wake up in the morning and slam down your first hit of vodka. There's good television and there's bad television. There's quality television and mindless diversion. There's no problem with watching mindless diversion once in a while. It allows you to relax. If you become addicted to only mindless diversion, it's going to affect your life in a negative way.

"I look around at television now. And I'm also a member of the board of directors of the Writers Guild. The writing in television is stronger today than the writing in movies. The best most thoughtful work is being done in TV. The amount of great hour dramas on television has never been better. As chairman of the TV academy, I can't join an outcry against TV. I've found TV a great way to express almost every thought that has come to me over the past 15 years."

Luke: "Journalism for many journalists is a religious calling. Do you ever wake up at 2AM and think that you've sold out?"

Bryce: "No. I haven't had anyone attack me for it. I miss journalism. On the other hand, what I do now for a living allows me to use all the skills of journalism. When you create a pilot, it's necessary for you to understand that world. And the best way to understand it is to go back to journalism. To do your research and call people up and interview them. I'm one of the best interviewers I know. I get things out of people I need information from that make my scripts better and more realistic. I've never quit being a journalist. I'm just practicing a different form of expression.

"And the TV Academy job expresses another aspect of my journalistic life. When the Emmys were in controversy this year and we had to postpone them twice, and I became the spokesperson for the TV Academy, that called on every skill I'd ever learned in journalism. In addition to the performance part of it from CNN days. Journalism is a state of mind that follows you all your life."

Luke: "Have you learned anything about the news business from your past four months in the spotlight?"

Bryce: "Absolutely. Like all journalists, I know what the deadline can do to you. It means that you've got to be on at a certain time. And I've been burned a couple of times by people who had a story they were bound and determined to report whether or not it fit with the facts. And I've been personally attacked in what I see as an unfair way.

"I realized during the Emmy situation that someone who is smart about journalism can have a significant impact on the stories written about their organization by understanding the mind of the journalist interviewing them and what their needs are. I probably give a good soundbite when called upon because I have listened to soundbites for thousands of hours, picking out 15-20 second soundbites.

"Have I become disenchanted by virtue of the experience? No. Ninety eight percent of the journalists I encounter are good at what they do and I feel like I am in good hands. One thing I've had to learn... I'm having a casual conversation with you now. I'm just rambling on and trying to be responsive... And when you're talking to a journalist on the record, there's no such thing as a casual comment. And you need to think carefully about what your message is. And I don't mean in a spin doctor kind of way but in a communication kind of way. What message do you want out?

"If your message is that the Emmys are a secure venue and you can feel secure coming to them, then don't talk about where the toilet facilities are going to be located. Talk about security. And better still, come up with a descriptive way of saying it. For example, at the Emmys, the phrase I used was that 'we would have presidential level security.' That turned out to not only be a good soundbite but a descriptive way for people to understand the truth."

Luke: "I couldn't find any of your bad press."

Bryce: "During the Emmys, it was all positive. We just went through a period where our executive committee chose not to renew the contract of our chief executive staff person. The Emmys was a positive situation because I was attempting to be resolved and resolute about the fact that they would go on. And that there was a reason for them to go on."

Luke: "What have you learned from presiding over the Television Academy, particularly as it applies to producing television?"

Bryce: "I'd put it the other way. What have I learned from producing television that applies to running the television academy. As a show runner, you learn a lot of skills. You learn how to run a good meeting and be productive. You learn how to delegate authority and trust people. And those are all important skills for running a large organization. Because you need to inspire people to see a common vision. You need to give them the adequate time and tools to achieve that vision. And then let them do their work. That's what I'm trying to do with the Television Academy. It's a volunteer position and I still have to work for a living. I can't afford to make it a fulltime obsession.

"I'm always enterprising new things. I have a pilot at Dreamworks Television. I just optioned a script to Fireworks, a major TV producer. And I'm finishing up the first draft of a feature film. And my wife and I have the Atlantis credit this year for story. It's tough to juggle all these things but I've always juggled many projects at a time. That goes back to CNN days when I was reporting four stories a day when the big network guys reported one story every three days. I've always been good at compartmentalizing and juggling multiple projects and that's what I must do now."

Luke: "What does your typical day look like?"

Bryce: "I haven't had the chance to evolve a typical day. During the Emmys, for instance, this was a story that people had an incredible amount of interest in because this was the first cultural touchstone to be affected by 9/11. I got to the Emmys and realized that I hadn't talked to anybody about who was nominated. I'd talked about security and resolve... During the Emmys, my typical day was to wake up and put on a suit and tie, which is something a writer-producer in this town almost never does... And I would drive in to town and drive to CNN or going to MSNBC or talking to the AP or stopping at the Academy for a security meeting. I had to say, 'greater good here. I've been called upon at this particular moment in history through no reason than the election to step in and do the best I can.' And that was a fulltime gig for a couple of months.

"Now I'm trying to do less of that. I'm trying to set specific hours that I work a the Academy and to continue my regular creative life. Most days involve Academy maintenance, idea generation and pitches and lunches. I hope in the next twelve months to end up on a series."

Luke: "Can you leverage your position with the Academy to further your career?"

Bryce: "I don't think so. I think it's the other way around. My experience so far is that it works the other way. You have to spend your time assuring people that you're still working because they so saw me so actively involved with the Academy on the Emmys, that many people simply assumed that that was my new job. I don't think I am going to get any work out of any new relationship that only exists because of the Academy. Everything that I'm involved with right now that could lead to work is with people I've worked with before. For the past 15 years, I've done four to eight scripts a year and pitched 20 times... I know most people. People who know me probably say, 'He's a maniac. He can run the Academy and run a show at the same time'."

Luke: "Where does your fascination with government conspiracies and UFOs come from?"

Bryce: "My first show was about a TV news room and my next show was Kay O'Brien, about a female surgeon in New York City. You are defined by your successes and I've been in a string where, as my career crested as a show runner, I also did a string of sci-fi shows, Lois and Clark, Dark Skies, M.A.N.T.I.S., and Crow: Stairway to Heaven. I think it would be harder to sell a conspiracy themed show now because people realize that implying that government is up to no good is a tough sell during a time when the only people who can potentially protect you from a terrorist is your government.

"I do believe there is a reality to UFOs. Therefore, if you believe that, you must also believe that there are people who have information about that reality that has not been shared on an official level. I've gone through periods when I was really into that because it was the show that I was doing, such as Dark Skies. You play a role. My role was as television producer of Dark Skies who was willing to speak up about the conspiracy. And now I don't have that role anymore. It doesn't mean that I don't believe. I just don't play it as much."

Luke: "Do you still believe that our government is holding back information from us about the existence of aliens?"

Bryce: "My feelings on that subject are semi-complex. But in a nutshell, I believe there is a reality to the UFO experience and that the government may have some knowledge about it. But the main thing they realize after 50 years of examination of that phenomenon is that they don't really know what is going on. Therefore, it is not surprising to me that the government doesn't call a news conference and say, 'Here's what we know.' Because they'd have to admit that they don't know much. They'd create panic by saying there is a reality to UFOs but we don't know where they come from, whether from the rest of universe or another dimension or they are time travelers. We have some excellent photos of some UFOs.

"I think that some time in the next 20 years, there will be a UFO incident that is captured on multiple cameras at different locations and multiple videotapes and authoritative witnesses numbering in the hundreds and at that point it will wind up on the cover of Time and Newsweek and every network will have to cover it. And at that point, the big global discussion will have to kick in. I also don't think it will change things. When we learn that there are UFOs who visit us from time to time, people will still get up in the morning and go to work."

Luke: "Do you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman who killed John F. Kennedy?"

Bryce: "No, I do not. I believe that the greatest work of American fiction is the Warren Commission."

Luke: "Do you believe in any cover-ups analogous to that?"

Bryce: "I'm not a raving paranoid. I'm really quite a patriot these days. I believe that our government by and large is actively trying to protect the interests of the American people and the rest of the world. I do think that as with any large organization, and our government is one of the largest ever created, there are things that have happened that people aren't proud of institutionally. For example, I don't think you're paranoid or a conspiracy theorist to point out things we now know to be true. We now know there were LSD experiments that were conducted by our own government."

Luke: "Bottom line, who do you think is really truly primarily behind the Kennedy assassination?"

Bryce: "It looks to me, even though Oliver Stone threw everybody into the conspiracy except the chef at the kitchen sink, he's closer to it. It seems to me that some version of organized crime, Cuban exiles and our own government played a shadowy coalition that allowed it to happen. I think we've reached that point where unless some evidence is unearthed later, which I doubt, it will always have a big asterisk by it in the history books. I think it is clear that multiple groups were involved."

Luke: "I went through a phase where I went through two dozen books on the matter and they say what you just said."

Bryce: "Dark Skies is an entire series that combined the two big conspiracy theories of all time - the Kennedy assassination and UFOs - into one. I don't personally believe the Dark Skies mythology but it made for a helluva good story."

Luke: "What are your latest thoughts on the Bush administrations overtures to Hollywood to join the war against terrorism?"

Bryce: "I think it was always overplayed about the administration's overtures. I think it was just as much a few individuals in Hollywood who made overtures to the administration. My sense is that both sides ended up in these meetings saying, 'So what do you want?,' to the other guy. Nobody is talking about censorship or propaganda or violating the First Amendment.

"I don't see any reason why we creative individuals who are also Americans observing the world can't have creative discussions amongst ourselves about some legitimate stories. If you told writers now to come up with an idea for a relevant idea to the war on terrorism, about 90% would come up with an idea of a Muslim American being discriminated against. I think what would really help America's case around the world is if there was a regular character on ER who was Muslim, but wasn't discriminated against and just did his job well. We're bending over backwards to be fair Americans when we should also ask ourselves if there are realistic programs to be developed about our ability to sustain a longterm war against terrorism. While everyone's pitching ideas about Muslim-Americans who are discriminated against, we could also postulate a show that takes place in a small New Jersey town across from the World Trade Center where 15 of their men and women went to work one morning and never came back. And wouldn't that be an interesting one hour drama to see how that city was healing itself and moving on.

"I think there may be lots of interesting conversations we've missed out on by virtue of taking content off the table. When I went to those meetings, it seemed like they were more technical than creative. It was, 'let's get a DVD of Harry Potter to the U.S.S. Carl Vincent. That's not going to save the world or end the war on terrorism."

Luke: "I think there's truly a perception in the heartland that the Hollywood community is not as patriotic."

Bryce: "I live in Agoura Hills. It's 35 miles north of Los Angeles. I live next to people who don't work in Hollywood. I'd like to believe that most of us in Hollywood are so shocked by the outrageousness of the attack of September 11, if the standard [of patriotism] is an appropriate response to September 11, I'd believe that we're patriotic. If the question is, in peace time, are Hollywood types as comfortable waving the flag as someone in Middle America on the Fourth of July, maybe they're not. But they're not that much different. I'd love to have dinner with Michael Medved and hear his view on that."

Luke: "One example Michael gives is that there was no movie made celebrating the Gulf War."

Bryce: "I agree that didn't happen. I don't know if that supports his point. Historically it has always taken Hollywood a longer time to come to grips with war. Hollywood deals with wars of the past more successfully than war of the recent past. Hollywood is in the business of spectacle. Is Black Hawk Down patriotic or not? I'm not sure. It's honest. It's disturbing. In some respects, I see it as patriotic. It is young guys doing their best to do what their country needs them to do, to the point of laying down their lives."

Luke: "Which of your shows have had the most meaning to you?"

Bryce: "The one that I wrote that has the most meaning to me, that was never made, was the Lewis and Clark, a feature I wrote for Warner Brothers. Kevin Costner was supposed to star. I'm an Oregonian and I grew up 50 miles away from where Louis and Clark spent the winter on the Pacific coast. That's a patriotic inspirational story about brave people who did the impossible. It's about the American spirit and the human spirit and I love that story. I love bringing something that was meaningful to me as a young kid to life in a screenplay.

"The thing I'm most proud of that was produced, Dark Skies has got my heart. That's a demonstration of free speech. Think about the ideas that were floated in that series. I was allowed to tell this outrageous story that had political overtones and fans have put more metaphorical spin on it than I ever thought I had on it when I did it. I got a full season to take $45 million to create this alternative universe over 20 hours of programming.

"We've been granted the publishing rights, so we can if we wish to continue to tell the story in book form, although that is a lot of energy.

"I came to love The Crow. The Crow character is my favorite character that wasn't mine that I've ever had to develop in a series. I made him over in my vision. By the time the series was over, he was not at all the character from the feature film but a different person. The TV series was more about redemption than revenge and the character reflected that.

"I loved being part of the team that reinvented Superman on Lois and Clark.Kay O'Brien was the first series I did that actually got made. I participated in it on a daily basis and everything about that experience was intense and unique and original."

Luke: "Does a TV show need to go five years and hit syndication to be a success?"

Bryce: "It helps. You can do it with less. The expanding television universe has changed the playing field. Dark Skies and The Crow, even though they each only did a single season, have been airing nonstop on the sci-fi channel for years now. They have Dark Skis and Crow marathons where they will air all episodes in a single day. The biggest problem for most TV producers and writers over the years was that whatever they did was lost forever. The great thing about tape and the exploding TV universe, is that it is all available to people again."

Luke: "How much are you able to put your vision into reality?"

Bryce: "It depends on the project, though clearly more in television than features. My vision, if you will, on [the 1997 feature] Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, was limited. We had to make sure if fit with the videogame people, the first movie, the producers. There were so many people it had to march to that drummer for that it wasn't a big creative highpoint. Television is different. Dark Skies, even though it was an incredible struggle to finish, is 95% the vision that Brett Freeman and I set out to do. Even though I had some of the lowest moments of my career during that show trying to hang on to certain things that I knew had to be part of the series, and yet I was being asked to give them up. It's situational. It's depends on whether you are the show-runner or not. Different projects require less 'vision' than others. Dark Skies was a big bold weird vision. Working on Life Goes On in its third or fourth season, whenever I was there, doesn't require a big bold vision. It was, 'Ok, we've got the franchise. How do we keep making the burgers here?'

"One of the greatest things that a writer can be involved in is writing the pilot for a series because for at least those few moments while you're writing it, you're creating a template that you hope will go forward. There aren't a thousand voices in your head."

Luke: "What does your work say about you?"

Bryce: "You mean where I've had a chance to execute just my vision? I'm an optimist, and when I've had the chance to see my vision through, whether it was in The Crow or Dark Skies or Kay O'Brien, I believe that things are going to work out. I believe there's a profoundly optimistic streak in humanity that I choose to think about most of the time. It's clear that our human traits make the best drama. No matter how fantastic the story, whether it is the invasion of the planet or a character who comes back from the dead, it's really about being a human being and surviving. It's the struggle to do the right thing and be a good person is what ennobles almost every story that people tell."

Luke: "Do you believe that human nature is basically good?"

Bryce: "I don't know. If you look around the world, the good guys seem to be winning by a whisker. Maybe that means we're basically good. I don't know. I think there's a good streak in the majority of human beings and I choose to think about that most of the time."

Luke: "How did you and your philosophy of life handle September 11?"

Bryce: "The first thing that I did was stay home with my children that day. I instantly knew that this was for them what the Kennedy assassination was for me and what Pearl Harbor was for my father. And that their generation was going to be defined by it. It's such a cataclysmic event that people could be so misguided that in the name of their God take so many lives in such a brutal and senseless way... That's why it gave me pause when you asked me about whether people are basically good. It causes you to question some of your bedrock values. It's changed how I feel about what I want to write and what I want to do with my life. You tend to make sure that you use your time as a valuable investment. You wake up every morning and ask, 'How can I be of service today.' And if that is the unintended consequence of 9/11, that we may look back on it and say that it had a positive upside because it made us stop taking things for granted."

Luke: "You say that America's diversity is its strength. Yet almost all of your peers, the folks who make TV and movies, are white males, two-thirds Jewish. So if diversity is so great, why don't you guys practice it too?"

Bryce: "I'm not Jewish, by the way. My wife is. We're making progress with diversity. We're more sensitive to the notion that diversity is truly a great strength. I believe you change the world one act at a time. You don't change it by issuing proclamations. You change it by doing the right thing from moment to moment. As more people have their consciousness raised on this issue, the world will become a more equal diverse and positive place. And that will happen in Hollywood as well. I don't think we want to condemn people for being white males. White males are a part of our population and they should be able to make a living as well. On the ground floor, I see it changing. I see inclusion happening. I certainly work for it. I see it reflected in many of the stories and movies that are told. Most of the tapes that I get for the Emmys that come from Showtime and HBO are incredibly diverse. Almost to the point where you go, if this were a story about a white male, it would never be made."

Luke: "What's it been like for you a non-Jew from Oregon moving into Jewish Hollywood?"

Bryce: "I guess I should be happy that people assume that I am Jewish then. This is something that I did not grow up tuned in to. I didn't have Jewish friends growing up. I did when I went to college but it surprised me that they were Jewish. Maybe the majority of my friends now are Jewish but I don't think of them in that way. I don't know that it has had no impact on me. My wife was disowned by her mother for eight years marrying me. My three kids have been raised in the Jewish religion. My son Johnathan, 15, has played on Jay Leno's Tonight Show on a number of skits over the years. Then I have a 13-year old daughter Lauren and a 10-year old son Jared."

7/17/02

Brian Lowry writes in the LA Times: ...[T]he [TV] academy has been without a president since December, when its "executive committee" opted not to renew the contract of the top full-time staff member, Jim Chabin. The decision came as a surprise, since the academy had just nimbly weathered last year's Emmys, which were twice postponed and shrouded in security concerns by the events of Sept. 11.

Academy insiders say various factors strained the relationship between Chabin and the elected chairman, Bryce Zabel, among them jockeying over who would act as the primary spokesman with outlets such as the "Today" show--an assertion Zabel has denied. Still, the academy has refused to discuss what prompted Chabin's release. Whatever the cause, some board members were upset enough by how the situation was handled they sought to challenge the board, only to be dismissed on procedural grounds.

As a result, the nonprofit group has been operating without a president for the past seven months, while Zabel--a writer-producer filling a volunteer role--tries to run the show. A spokeswoman said the academy hopes to select a replacement before this year's Emmy ceremony in September, after issuing a statement saying details of its search "have remained confidential to avoid compromising the positions of candidates who are currently employed with other organizations."