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An ear for great stories

James is a Times staff writer.

The gig: President of Universal Media Studios, the NBC Universal-owned television studio that produces “Heroes,” “House,” “The Office,” “30 Rock” and the long-running “Law & Order” series. “I spend a lot of time talking about stories, ideas, characters. That’s probably the best part of my job.”

Career research, early on: “When I was really little, I was of course addicted to “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island.” Who wasn’t? I loved “Family Ties,” and my dad always made us watch “The Paper Chase,” and I really loved “Cosby.” I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of TV while growing up, that’s the irony.”

Background: While attending Sarah Lawrence College in New York, Pope interned at ABC News’ “Primetime Live.” After graduation in 1994, she worked at ABC News and then CBS News, where she helped produce a series on the 50th anniversary of the “CBS Evening News.”

She was offered a job at “60 Minutes II,” but that didn’t excite her. “I literally decided to just come out here [to Los Angeles] to see what happened. I really didn’t know anybody.”

She got an apartment near the Fairfax district and a freelance job at “Behind the Music” on VH1. She once drove to the ICM talent agency in a big, borrowed pickup truck. “The valets wouldn’t park it.”

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The big break: Nine years ago, Pope was accepted into the NBC Associates program, which was established to train promising young executives. “I just needed an opportunity. I needed to get in there. I didn’t have connections, all my friends were in New York and my family was in Chicago. It was all about figuring out how to get in.”

She was assigned to NBC Studios, which had one prime-time hit, “Will & Grace.” “I worked on that show in its second season, and when I say ‘worked on,’ I mean I just sort of stood there and was really quiet and watched everything. The only people who talked to me were the PAs [production assistants] and the security guards.

“One of the things that senior executives said was like, ‘Don’t talk to anyone. You are in these meetings and the executives are having difficult conversations about a script or whatever, and they don’t want some kid nodding and saying, Umm hmm.’ ”

Best advice: “Early in my career I had to be really good at getting my opinion out there, and being specific, and having a point of view. And in the last couple of years I have had to be better at listening and taking in other points of view. I’m always kind of working on myself.” Tim Kring, the creator of “Heroes,” “gave me the advice when I started in this job that I had always been great at getting my opinion out there and stating a strong case, and maybe I needed to start thinking about listening.”

The best pitch: Kring’s “Heroes” pitch was “amazing, and Pete Berg’s pitch for ‘Friday Night Lights’ was pretty great too. He spoke so passionately and emotionally, and you just knew. I think the best pitches are [when] you look at someone and realize that this is a story they have to tell. I never know if something is going to be a huge hit or not, but I feel that I have a good sense of whether something is going to be good.”

Personal: 36 years old, married to Richard Robbins, a documentary filmmaker. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Willa. “We watch old movies together. . . . She really loves Judy Garland, Julie Andrews and Cinderella.”

What’s next? Pope’s current contract with NBC is up in June. “This isn’t an easy job, but I absolutely love the work. And I’m not finished doing it.” But if she wasn’t working in entertainment?

“I always say that when I get booted out of the business, I would like to get my PhD in literature. I love research, I love being in musty libraries and archives. I would probably be in academia or book publishing. This job is similar to book editing. You are really helping somebody to pull out the story that they are trying to tell.”

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meg.james@latimes.com


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