Finding his voice on TV


The Gig: Paul Telegdy is president of alternative and late-night programming for NBC Entertainment. He is responsible for unscripted shows, including “The Voice,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Saturday Night Live.”

The gregarious 40-year-old Brit, son of a Hungarian political refugee who became a chemical engineer and a former British actress turned teacher, has lived in Switzerland, Austria, England, Belgium and the U.S. Telegdy, a father of two young daughters, took an unconventional path to network television, but the seeds were planted early. “I remember my grandmother saying, ‘That child only watches TV.’”

The dogsbody: Telegdy earned his bachelor’s degree in Japanese and Korean from the University of London. “There was this massive economic growth in Asia, and a professor told me, ‘If you learn a language that allows you do business in Japan, Korea and China, the world will be yours.’ I listened. The reason I learned Japanese was a cynical ploy to be of interest to the investment banking world.”


But Telegdy had no interest in banking. His ability to speak five languages nonetheless opened doors. His first position was with a small London firm, Richard Price Television Associates.

“This guy had his fingers in a lot of pies. His primary business was the selling of British-made programming overseas and buying Australian imports. He jokingly said, ‘You’re going to be a ‘dogsbody,’ which is the British term for being a gopher. He wrote on the employment contract: ‘your title is dogsbody, your salary is 9,750 pounds, which is about $15,000 [annually], and you are going to work terrible, long hours, but you’ll get the first proper job that comes open.’ After about three months, a proper job opened up and I found myself getting on planes to foreign lands.”

The Beeb: In the late 1990s, after several years of selling TV shows, “I decided I was in the wrong business, so I applied for a job at the BBC. The BBC is a cultural institution, it’s like all the networks rolled into one.” Joining the BBC meant a cut in pay, but he wanted to get into programming. He managed music entertainment, children’s programs, lifestyle and makeover shows. In 2004, he moved to Los Angeles to help the BBC expand its business.

The dance: On one of his first days in L.A., “The phone rings and it was Ricky Gervais’ manager. Ricky was hot off [the original, British version of] ‘The Office,’ and his manager said, ‘Ricky is thinking about doing this show where he is a struggling actor. He might make six episodes. Do you think you can sell it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think I can.’ I was trying a bit of a poker face.” Two phone calls later, Telegdy sold the show to HBO. “We made ‘Extras,’ a show that Ricky is very proud of.”

Before long, a cadre of BBC executives, including Telegdy, sold to ABC the concept behind a British hit about ballroom dancing. “We were like, ‘What happens next?’ ” So Telegdy put together a production company to make the show. “Dancing With the Stars” became one of the biggest hits for the network, and propelled Telegdy on a rising star trajectory in the hit-driven TV business.

The peacock: Telegdy was recruited by NBC in 2008 to develop unscripted programming just after the network recalibrated “The Apprentice” with a celebrity twist. Several duds followed. “The rest is slightly folkloric, but I saw this Internet clip from this wacky Dutch show with a big red rotating chair. When we saw the Dutch version of ‘The Voice,’ we knew.” He recruited Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green. “The Voice” turned into NBC’s biggest hit in years. (It returns for a second season Feb. 5, and Telegdy got a promotion.) “People love success and the idea that there are people who want to help you succeed.”


The secret weapon: What other elements are responsible for Telegdy’s success -- besides his charm? “Well, charm is not to be underestimated in American corporate culture. It is adaptability, and I have had to do that my whole life. I went to boarding school at age 7, and you have to fit in. You have to be useful and have an impact. And I have creative insights, instincts, which are based from having absorbed every kind of programming from all over the world.

“I have a British accent, but I have an American brother. My dad left Hungary in 1956 and made a life in a new country and married an English woman,” Telegdy said. “I am a mutt, basically, and we are designed to fit in.... But I don’t feel like I made it at all. I’m still a work in progress.”