KETCHUM - Far from studio 8H in New York, an audience in Idaho got a backstage look at Saturday Night Live during the Sun Valley Film Festival in Ketchum Sunday.
Broadway Video CEO Jack Sullivan answered questions about his company for more than an hour as part of the festival’s coffee talk series. Sullivan’s company also produces Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, 30 Rock and Up All Night on NBC and Portlandia on IFC.
With more than six inches of snow piled up outside, the crowd of 50 or so inside the Magic Lantern Cinemas peppered Sullivan with questions from across the spectrum. He expressed a belief in the strength of television despite change, and a nod to the future of entertainment in digital forms.
Sullivan talked about the process for bringing new cast-members on to the iconic sketch comedy show. Each July dozens audition and show producer Lorne Michaels works to find the best fits for the cast. Sullivan said cast members typically stay for seven season - which could mean change in the air since many current cast members are nearing that threshold.
One star - Kristin Wiig - who sees screen time as the Target Lady and dozens of other characters may be in her final days on SNL.
“I think so - but it’s not decided. We'd be thrilled if she’d come back but it's not decided yet,” he said noting that Wiig is currently in her 8th year on the show, and has seen film success in movies like last summer’s hit Brisdesmaids.
Sullivan says he sees a lot of promise in Vanessa Bayer (known for her parody of Miley Cyrus) and Taran Killiam (known for playing Pee Wee Herman, Eminem and others). He also mentioned Jay Pharoah - who has done parodies of everyone from Eddie Murphy to Will Smith to Denzel Washington. “For cast members in those early years on the show it’s sometimes just a struggle to get airtime.” Sullivan says with so many veterans in the cast there is likely to be some change in coming seasons.
One audience member asked about the recent hosting turn of Lindsay Lohan - who has seen her share of rough times and tabloid press in recent years. He noted that the episode earlier this month did a great rating.
“Lindsay's been a friend of the show,” Sullivan said. “Lorne thought she’d be good. It was sort of a tricky show to do, but it had a curiosity factor and people watched it.”
Broadway Video also produces Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. After the traumatic transition on the Tonight Show in 2010 (from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien to Leno again), is Fallon seen as a future heir to the Tonight Show?
“The network has been supportive (of Jimmy). I feel like there is long-term potential for that,” he said. “Jay loves to work and could be doing it until he is 98 for all we know.”
Sullivan said the cost structure of those types of late night shows is a changing dynamic. While the audience is fracturing with more and more options (video games, shows on DVR, niche shows like Adult Swim on Cartoon Network) - the amount of money being made by shows like Tonight and Late Night is shrinking, while costs stay the same.
“How long does it make sense to have that type of cost at 11:30 at night with a band and set, etc. when the audience is fracturing?”
Despite change, Sullivan is bullish on the TV medium. Several audience members asked about the transformation of the television business with TiVO, the Internet and other factors.
“For advertisers, TV is the best bet,” he said simply. “It’ not a perfect system but advertisers spend money there.”
He said that the Internet will continue to grow - and noted how many advertisers are putting as much as 20% of their budget into digital products like streaming video. Despite that, he sees a bright future for TV.
“There’s always going to be a market for TV,” he said. “You’re going to see people watching content in different ways, but TV is still the place you can get the most aggregate eyeballs.”
Sullivan said Broadway Video is betting big on the digital space too, developing a number of concepts just for online audiences. He said they have an animated series in development just for Hulu.
He thinks the Internet has been an aid to shows like SNL. The runaway success of Lazy Sunday and other so-called Digital Shorts have brought a younger audience to the show and helped it grow and get new types of exposure.
Some other nuggets from the session:
- On Betty White’s SNL turn last May: He said some were worried about how she would hold up with the rigors of live TV and the hectic SNL schedule. He said White looked a little wobbly and tired during the dress rehearsal earlier in the evening - but once the light went on for the live show “she did great, which shows what a professional she is.”
- On Tin Fey as Sarah Palin: Sullivan said people noticed right away the resemblance between Fey and Palin during the 2008 campaign, but Fey was unsure she wanted to do it - and worried it might be too political. Michaels talked her into it in a “subtle, nice way.” But he said the impression may have done more for SNL than most people knew. After the 2007 writers strike, there was some chatter about the future of Saturday Night Live due to its high cost and ratings that had been sliding in recent years. Fey as Palin was a big shot in the arm for the show. “No one anticipated it would be that huge. The ratings were really high that year and it got us past our little bump in the road with the network. Thankfully Tina Fey looks like Sarah Palin (laughs). It was great for the show.”
- On who is most “passionately difficult:” One audience member asked about who is hard to work with - even in a good way. Sullivan agreed with the suggestion that 30 Rock co-star Alec Baldwin is sometimes personally difficult, but, ”he's a personal favorite of mine. With a guy like Alec he still shows up and gives it everything he has for every episode he does."
- On NBC-owner Comcast’s parody treatment by 30 Rock: “They try not to push back. They might ask us to go a little easier, but for the most part there is independence there and they realize it’s comedy,” he said. “It’s really good natured. We try to do it in a way that’s not mean spirited.”
The Sun Valley Film Festival wraps up Sunday and has screened dozens of local, regional and national films.