Amazon has selected NBC Entertainment President Jen Salke to run its Santa Monica-based Amazon Studios, filling one of the most sought-after jobs in television.
Salke’s appointment, announced Friday, comes at a critical juncture for the Seattle-based retailing giant. It must craft a cohesive programming strategy, mend relations with some Hollywood producers and develop more mainstream hits to better compete against deep-pocketed streaming rivals, including Netflix, HBO and Hulu.
Salke replaces Roy Price, who was ousted in October after being the subject of a sexual harassment complaint brought by a producer on an Amazon show.
Even before Hollywood was roiled by sexual harassment scandals, Price was on thin ice. Amazon’s entertainment division initially made a splash with such shows as “Transparent,” “Mozart in the Jungle,” and the movie “Manchester By the Sea,” which won an Oscar for best original screenplay. But by last fall, it seemed to be losing its moorings.
Prominent writer-producers had complained that it was difficult to deal with Amazon Studios because the decision-making seemed haphazard. Morale was low. In addition to Price, several other studio executives were let go at the end of last year.
Those who know Salke, 53, said she will bring a different style and sensibility. She has a reputation for being approachable and collaborative. She has a den-mother manner and a track record for picking winners — particularly shows that click with mass audiences.
She was an early champion of the family drama “This is Us,” which has grown into a blockbuster hit for NBC. Salke brought to the network the sitcoms “Superstore” and “The Good Place” with Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. She also worked with producer Dick Wolf to expand his popular franchise of Chicago-centric dramas, including “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago Med.”
“What stood out about Jen was the deep relationships she has nurtured with creators and talent over her career, spanning NBCU, Twentieth Century Fox, and Aaron Spelling Productions,” Jeff Blackburn, Amazon’s senior vice president of business and development, said in a statement announcing Salke’s hiring.
“She’s built an impeccable reputation as a big leader who emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and teamwork,” Blackburn said.
Salke is expected to join Amazon in late March or early April, providing a transition period during network pilot season as NBC pieces together its new fall schedule.
“She is exactly what Amazon needs — a programming expert,” said Michael Pachter, a media analyst with Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles.
He said some of Amazon’s programming, including “Transparent” — about a 70-year-old father, played by Jeffrey Tambor, who shocks his family by coming out as transgender — lacks mainstream appeal. Pachter said the Amazon shows seem designed for people who are “entertainment industry insiders, liberals — people who live on the Westside,” he said.
“Amazon doesn’t really make commercially successful shows,” Pachter said, adding the company must shift its focus to attract broader audiences who haven’t yet signed up for the Amazon Prime service.
“If Amazon is going to grow, it needs to bring in more medium-income customers,” he said.
The leadership reboot comes as Amazon’s rivals have scored with premium programming that felt more culturally relevant, including HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
However, Amazon has launched some new gems, including “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and the movie “The Big Sick.”
Salke has been in the television trenches for years, including nearly seven at NBC. She was a key part of the team that reinvigorated the peacock network after Comcast took control of NBCUniversal in 2011. She was one of the first hires of NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt.
Before that, she was a top executive at the prolific 20th Century Fox Television studio, where she helped develop “Modern Family” and “Glee.”
“Jennifer Salke is a world-class entertainment executive and deserves enormous credit for helping put NBC back on top,” Greenblatt said in a statement. “While we will all miss her enormously, we will hopefully find many new ways to be in business with her at Amazon.“ NBC is expected to name a replacement as soon as next week.
Amazon spent the last three months interviewing prominent female executives for its new studio chief. Those included Dana Walden, chairman of the Fox Television Group; Stacey Snider, chairman of the 20th Century Fox Film studio; and Nancy Dubuc, president and chief executive officer of A+E Networks, which includes History, Lifetime and A&E.
Amazon’s movie chief, Jason Ropell, will report to Salke, as well as chief operating officer Albert Cheng, who has been managing Amazon Studios since Price’s exit.
At NBC, Salke was responsible for comedy development, drama development, casting and diversity programming initiatives. She juggled about 40 shows, including those produced by NBC’s Universal Television studio unit. Last summer, she launched a program to mentor female directors so they would get important experience behind the camera. And just last month, she was tasked with business affairs and production for scripted programming.
“I’m incredibly excited about the future at Amazon Studios,” Salke said in a statement. “In the studio’s relatively short existence they have innovated, disrupted, and created characters that are already an indelible part of pop-culture. I am both honored and emboldened by the opportunity to lead this extraordinary business."
She also noted that the move would be bittersweet.
“NBC has been an amazing home — creatively, professionally and personally — and I leave there knowing that the work we did had groundbreaking impact,” Salke said. “It’s an exciting time to be a content creator.”
Amazon shares closed down less than 1%, or $10.90, to $1,339.60.