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Volume 41. No. 2.
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From Tomes to the Tube
Studying English at Pomona turned out to be perfect preparation for Susan Levison 96's role as a Fox TV executive.

By Mark Kendall

English major Susan Levison ’96 graduated magna cum laude from Pomona with plans to become a professor. She went on to get her master’s degree at Boston University, focusing her studies on 20th Century American poetry.

Believe it or not, all this turned out to be perfect preparation for her role today as an executive at the Fox Broadcasting Co., known for attracting younger viewers – and its share of controversy. There she deals with modern American poetry of another form, sifting through script after script in search of the next hit.

“I’m a child of the ’80s and I grew up with so many classic shows,’’ says Levison, who cites Cheers as a favorite. “I’ve always loved the medium. It can get to 40 million people at once. It can get to all of America.”

Looking back at her Pomona days, this shift from tomes to the tube shouldn’t come as a shock. She performed as part of the five-college improv group Without a Box, working as director her senior year. After grad school in Boston, she returned to Los Angeles, where she studied acting at the Groundlings. But she quickly realized the business side of entertainment was more interesting to her than the performance side.

She landed an assistant’s gig with Creative Artist’s Agency, working long days sending out scripts to clients and agents. While there, she met a lower-level network exec who became her mentor, and, in 1998, Levison landed a job as an assistant in the alternative programming division at Fox. At the time, that division handled late-night shows, sketch comedies and animated series. Then along came the “reality TV” show Survivor on another network in 2000, and the scramble was on to find more reality hits.

Rising from assistant to executive, Levison worked on ratings winners such as Temptation Island and The Simple Life, before shifting over to the drama division, which more closely fit her interests. Today, as vice president for drama development, she plays an important part in the network’s search for new shows.

The quest for the next TV hit requires a winnowing process as daunting as anything on Fox’s American Idol.

In the summer and fall, Levison and other execs hear about 400 pitches for new shows. As the choices narrow, it becomes the job of Levison and other execs to pitch the shows they like. By January, the network is ready to order up 10 pilots. Later comes a meeting, attended by News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and President Peter Chernin, where the five or so new shows that will make it on the air are chosen. “By the end of the year, five people love us and 395 people can’t stand us,” she says.

But writers shouldn’t feel helpless. “If you are talented, there is no doubt in my mind you will be discovered,” she says. “We can’t succeed unless we find talent. We are looking everywhere.”

And she notes the television executives don’t take their duties lightly. “I think what people don’t realize is how hard we work and how much we care,” she says. “It takes so much work to make even a mediocre TV show.”

Levison once had to give up her birthday and head to the Four Seasons Hotel to convince heiress Paris Hilton to proceed with The Simple Life. That sort of task simply comes with the territory of being a TV exec. “It’s a lot of fun,” says Levison, who aspires to head a network someday. “You can’t take yourself too seriously.”

Fox sometimes takes flak for its programming, but that doesn’t bother Levison. “We push the envelope and we’re very unapologetic about it,” says Levison. “And that’s our brand.”

Levison credits Pomona with teaching her to how to evaluate material and to write in a clear, crisp manner. These days she’s always toting around scripts to read, but Levison does manage to find time for other forms of literature. Lately, she’s been carrying a copy of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.

And when the Hollywood Reporter recently profiled Levison as one of “35 executives who represent the future of industry,” Levison said she turns to the written word for inspiration. "I often find it fantastically inspiring to read a great book,’’she told the trade paper. “It inspires me to dig in creatively on what I'm working on at the moment."
 
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