‘The evolution will always come’

Two Newhouse alumni—friends since their Kimmel Hall days—discuss the streaming era.

During their first year at Syracuse University, as residents of Kimmel Hall, Newhouse alumni Tanya (Hands) Giles ’93 and Rob Owen ’93 bonded over their shared love of television. They have remained friends ever since. Now, she’s chief programming officer of streaming for Paramount, overseeing programming decisions for Paramount+ and Pluto TV. Owen is TV columnist for TribLive.com/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and a freelance TV writer for The Seattle Times, Kansas City Star, Richmond Times-Dispatch and Variety.

The two friends met up on Zoom to discuss Giles’ ascendancy as a top programmer in the streaming era.

Tanya Giles

Owen: We both have been fans of TV from a very young age. What’s your earliest memory of nerding out over TV?

Giles: Definitely “Welcome Back, Kotter.” I fell hard for Vinnie Barbarino [played by John Travolta]. That was my first huge fan girl moment. I had posters of Vinnie Barbarino. My lunchbox was the Sweat Hogs. I think I was 4 or 5.

Owen: And am I correct that at some point you met Travolta?

Giles: Three times. He never remembers me, but I don’t take it personally. My reaction is always the same. I always freak out.

Owen: My first TV nerd out moment was with the TV show “V.” I remember taking notes on every episode of “V: The Series” and creating essentially an episode guide before I’d ever heard the term “episode guide.”

Giles: I can totally see you doing that. [At Syracuse] you and I would have long conversations that bored everyone else about plots and character and why you disagreed with a plot and I would say, “No, this is why it was a good thing.”

Owen: If I remember correctly, we were watching “Twin Peaks” together the night they revealed Leland Palmer killed his daughter, Laura.

Giles: Yes! We grabbed each other’s hands and screamed. The only appropriate reaction.

Owen: Television, radio and film is a pretty broad major with a lot of directions you could go. Did you always have working at a network as a career goal?

Giles: I knew that I wanted to be in television. I just had no idea what that meant. I started as a production major. And I think my first shoot was outdoors. And it was at night. And it was Syracuse. So I was freezing for a two-minute video. Production was a lot of hurry up and wait, and outside. And I’m like, no, not for this indoor cat. So then I switched to writing. That’s where you start thinking about story and character development and plots. I never wanted to be a TV writer. I didn’t have a story in me that I wanted to tell. But that was the major where I truly understood all of that.

Owen: So in TRF there was a production track and a writing track?

Giles: Yeah, and there was a management track and I never even considered that. That was for business people.

Owen: And now look at you! After SU you got a master’s in communication at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. What was your plan at that point?

Tanya Giles and Rob Owen
Giles and Owen in 2013

Giles: I wanted to be a professor because Bob Thompson was like a hero to me. And I saw how he spent his time thinking about TV and talking about TV and getting young minds excited about that. And I was like, “Oh, that’s a cool job. I’d like to do that.” And then when I was [at Annenberg], I felt like there’s an avenue where I could actually work in TV and maybe I’ll take a minute and explore that before I commit to a Ph.D. And then I never went back to the academic world.

Owen: I loved taking his class, too, but as much as I remember writing papers for him, I clearly remember going to his office hours just to talk TV. I have a distinct memory of talking about “Picket Fences.”

Giles: I remember having conversations about “Hill Street Blues” and his idea was, if you can have an auteur in film, what’s your auteur in TV and how could that be possible? And look at it now: Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Taylor Sheridan—these TV auteurs who have used this medium in a way that is really just amazing.

Owen: So your first stop working in the TV business was in research at CBS.

Giles: I worked for Dave Poltrak, who’s legendary in the TV research world. That was fascinating because it was really boot camp. He is the best of the best, and you learn how to analyze a show’s impact on the business. The decisions made around Nielsen ratings really fascinated me.

Owen: So then how did you get to Viacom?

Giles: In New York [at CBS], it was only the numbers. And I was really interested in—and again, this is from my Newhouse and Thompson days—why is the show bigger? Why do people like this? And that department was in LA—this sort of talking-to-the-audience, doing the pilot test focus group—and I wasn’t going to LA. So I started looking in cable because the center of cable was in New York. And a place like Viacom, where you have these brands that were hyper-focused on particular audiences: Nickelodeon and kids, MTV and young people. That’s where I knew I wanted to be, and I went to Nickelodeon to work in kids TV [research].

Owen: What was your last job at Viacom before you joined Paramount+?

Giles: I was general manager of the MTV Entertainment Group, which was a variety of channels, essentially most of the adult channels at Viacom: Comedy Central, Paramount Network, TV Land, MTV, etc. It was more of a functional managing: managing the programming team, managing the research team and then sort of being, for lack of a better term, the chief of staff for the culture of the brands.

Owen: Every major media company is structured a little bit differently, so what does it mean to be chief programming officer of streaming for Paramount?

Giles: Paramount has creative studios—Nickelodeon Studios, Paramount Television Studios, the Paramount movie studio, obviously, MTV Studios—and these studios are run by chief content officers. They are charged with creating content across different genres and content lanes for all of our platforms, two of which are Paramount+ and Pluto TV. I think of myself as a spoke, the one who curates and says, “Those will work for Paramount+” and “We would love to have that but it’s not quite right because this is the slate that we have.” It’s orchestrating that. Those creative minds are developing and making and doing and then I’m the spoke in the wheel that’s curating. And then it becomes this ebb and flow of, like, we see that we have this audience, we brought them in with “1883,” how can we develop more content that will keep that audience? So then I start having those more proactive conversations: We need this. Or, there’s this audience we’re just not reaching and yet they’re big streamers, they over-index on streaming, why aren’t we getting them? So it’s using my research chops and creating the slate.

Owen: Are you reading scripts and giving notes? Watching rough cuts from set?

Giles: I do get cuts. And I do get scripts. I try, as “the suit,” to leave the creative expertise to the creatives.  But … you’ve got to step in when you’ve got to step in. You know it when you see it. But the scripts and the cuts are more about, We’ve got to market this, we’ve got to merchandise this, we’ve got to know who this is going to appeal to.

Owen: So how do you balance the mix of programming on Paramount+? How do you balance wholly original properties versus established titles? For example, IP (intellectual property)?

Giles: The advantage of mining IP is it comes with a fandom, right? They’re already excited to see where the story is going to go. When you’re a new streaming service [it’s] helpful because you hope you can get that fandom to come to your service and then grow an audience from there. We have brands that are more than 40 years old that have created some of the most iconic IP there is. And there is actually a viewer expectation that if you are called Paramount, you stand for the IP that’s associated with Paramount, or the brands like MTV and Nickelodeon and Comedy Central. And there’s so much great IP and so many shows and stories that we said goodbye to over the years. There’s a really amazing opportunity to revive those characters and stories. And that, of course, gives you the freedom to do the new.

Owen: And then there’s Pluto TV, a FAST (free, ad-supported TV service) platform.  What’s your role with that? Because most of what’s on FAST platforms is not original content.

Giles: It’s everything I grew up with. I’m kind of a kid in a candy store. It is the programmer’s dream. It’s more than 340 channels. You’re not limited by genre or brand. Our job there is to categorize and curate for viewers’ delight. Make stuff easy to find. Lean into people’s passions. Make it fun. Make it surprising. The three things that people love about Pluto: It’s free, it’s easy and it’s fun.

Owen: How do you keep an eye on what the rest of the industry is doing? I used to take pride in reviewing every scripted show and then around 2014-15, when all the streaming services got into original programming, that became impossible.

Giles: I do watch a lot of TV. I just do. It’s my way to relax, escape, wind down, deal with stress. It’s my go-to. I love TV. I watch with my kids and my husband. It’s not a chore to me.

Owen: So looking ahead, do you anticipate further consolidation? And where do you see the TV/streaming business going?

Giles: I think consolidation is always a possibility. Past experience can predict future and I think there’s going to be a continuous evolving. Viewers can only hold so much in their brains, and I think we will find that there is a “just enough” opportunity. But then, you know, something new might come along. You just have to be prepared for the evolution because the evolution will always come.