Not long ago, Jeff Gaspin was known inside NBC Universal as a “man without a country.” The executive floated from job to job, collecting clunky titles such as executive vice president for alternative series, longform, specials and program strategy.
No one can say that now. Last week, the man without a country gained an empire as the reserved 48-year-old executive was thrust into the No. 2 job at NBC Universal, directly under Chief Executive Jeff Zucker. Gaspin now manages all of NBC’s TV entertainment operations, including the NBC network, NBC’s Spanish-language networks and cable channels including USA Network and Bravo.
He also won a streamlined title: chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment.
“This is another piece in putting together a team that will hopefully bring us more success,” Zucker said. “I know Jeff incredibly well and I trust him implicitly.”
But with the new gig comes big challenges. Technology has roiled the media industry and executives are scrambling to protect the mainstay 30-second commercial and the lucrative fees earned from selling TV program reruns -- which have long underwritten the high cost of making dramas and comedies -- in the ad-zapping digital age.
Gaspin must stem NBC’s more than five-year slide in ratings and profits as well as stabilize the network’s West Coast division after two years with Ben Silverman at the programming controls, a tumultuous period that produced lots of gossip but no hit shows.
“None of us are happy with the position that NBC is in,” Gaspin said. “We have to make progress.”
Gaspin’s promotion also elevates an executive who cut his teeth in cable and the burgeoning genre of reality TV, rather than in the trenches of scripted comedy and drama development that has been the more common breeding ground for network executives. But, perhaps not surprisingly, reality and cable is where NBC has had some success in recent years, with shows such as “The Biggest Loser.”
The older of two boys, Gaspin grew up in Bayside, N.Y., the son of a spendthrift father who drove a Lincoln Continental and a mother who worked to keep the family afloat. Gaspin describes himself at the time as “a little introverted,” an earnest student who sat in the front row to compensate for poor eyesight.
“I was always ambitious,” Gaspin said. “I grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment.”
His parents wanted him to become a doctor, so he took pre-med courses. “That’s what you did when you were Jewish and growing up on Long Island. You had to be a doctor or a lawyer because those were the professions that got you more.”
But Gaspin didn’t want to become a doctor. He wasn’t sure what to do. Although he watched CBS shows such as “Mary Tyler Moore” and “All in the Family” with his grandparents, he didn’t have a fascination with the medium, as did many aspiring TV executives.
His one link to show business was his grandfather, who had been a contract player in the early days of the movie business for Paramount Pictures. Gaspin’s entry into NBC was less glamorous. He found a listing at New York University, where he was seeking an MBA, for an entry-level finance job.
He was hired, and in 1984 he began tracking local ads for NBC stations. Gaspin transferred to NBC Entertainment and managed budgets for shows, including “Saturday Night Live.”
A chance encounter with the new head of NBC News was his big break. Gaspin was in an elevator, holding a copy of NBC’s in-house publication that mentioned his second-place finish in a writing contest. NBC News head Michael Gartner was in the elevator too. Intrigued, Gartner hired Gaspin to oversee the financial side of the news division.
When Gartner left in 1993, Gaspin joined up with Barry Diller to help the former studio mogul try to launch a new home shopping network. Later, Gaspin joined Viacom Inc. in 1996 as head of programming for cable channel VH1.
“That was the first job I took that was pure programming,” Gaspin said.
In March 1997, Gaspin wondered, “Whatever happened to Milli Vanilli?” The 1980s pop music duo had been disgraced after it was revealed that they had been lip-syncing songs from their Grammy-winning album. Over lunch one day with producer Gay Rosenthal, Gaspin pitched his idea for a series about the rise and fall of pop idols. Rosenthal had with her a copy of People magazine that featured a story about rapper MC Hammer and how he had squandered $33 million. That also would make a great episode, they thought.
The idea evolved into VH1’s breakout hit show “Behind the Music,” which launched with episodes on Vanilli and Hammer and ran for nine years.
Gaspin returned to NBC in 2001 when Zucker offered him a job as chief of reality shows. He moved his family to the West Coast and helped craft “Fear Factor” and “The Apprentice.”
Soon he was also running Bravo. The cable channel had an offbeat show in development, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Some executives lobbied Gaspin to change the name, but he refused.
“We thought there was no way we could sell the show to a big network,” said producer Michael Williams. “But Jeff got behind the show.”
“Queer Eye” put Bravo on the map as a cultural tastemaker. Gaspin acknowledges that he spent a few years in a nebulous role.
“I had these hybrid responsibilities. Jeff [Zucker] knew I wanted more but he wasn’t ready to give me what I wanted,” Gaspin said. “So he would give me other things and we would keep adding a title to my title.”
But things fell into place when he took over cable distribution, a job Gaspin said prepared him for his new role.
“The last two years have been two of the best learning years of my career,” Gaspin said. “I think I learned to be selfless and understand that I have the responsibility for a lot of people’s livelihoods. My job became much more about supporting the team.”