HRTS Member Spotlight: Tony Jonas, Tony Jonas Productions and USC School of Cinematic Arts

by Diane Wang

Tony Jonas is a Professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at USC, and has had a career spanning over 25 years in the business including President of WBTV from 1996 to 1999 as well as Executive and Producer positions at Disney, Winkler/Rich, MGM/UA, Aaron Spelling and EMI. Tony has served as President of HRTS and on the Board, and he met with JHRTS member Diane Wang to discuss the current state of television, problem-solving, and seizing opportunities wherever they may arise.

Can you tell us about your background and what made you want to work in entertainment?

I was working my way through school at UCLA and had taken one lone film course: The Films of Frank Capra–and after watching 20 films and documentaries including “It Happened One Night” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” I was suddenly introduced to the cinematic art forms of storytelling, camera language, the architecture that builds to comedic tension and release, and sheer romantic chemistries and social and moral imperatives—all particularly fascinating filmic ways to unlock emotions, laughter, morality, and the “secrets” of love in people–LARGE numbers of people as in mass audiences—and that was suddenly an enormously interesting and seductive notion to me-AND PEOPLE MADE MONEY DOING THIS!? Who knew a seminal seed was planted by this Friday afternoon class!

So meanwhile running a small construction company with my brother during college, long days of building and painting gave way to one day my hatching an idea for a movie to star Clint Eastwood, a thriller—why not shoot for the moon? Obsessively, I wrote a 120-page treatment in a cathartic 3 days, and next thing I knew two producers were budgeting it and called with questions regarding the production…hopelessly ignorant of the entire process, I sounded like an idiot—the clear path was get a job in production anywhere—and fast! The movie never got made, but my obvious deficits launched me into sponging up everything I could learn.

How did you get involved with the HRTS?

After two years as an associate producer of movies of the week at EMI-TV, I had just joined Aaron Spelling Productions—the leading series producer in all of television, a prize in itself. As Director of Development I’d now become a junior exec and MIGHT now qualify to attend the HRTS Luncheon circuit where the 500 people responsible for all television production–and reach into American culture–would assemble each month following the heralded Network President’s Panel. Getting a seat at the company table was a big deal, and I waited my turn for a ticket to “the show.” Several months later, I scored an invite and marveled at the tables filled with network, studio, and agency brass, important production companies and key law firms, significant producers and writers, and various community leaders buying, selling, and the latest gossip on executive shuffle rumors were at play. It was a beehive of everyone I wanted to meet and wanted to be—I had “arrived.” Little did I know then that in years to come I’d have a chance to participate and add to HRTS as a board member and eventually serve as President in 2000—what an honor…

I understand you are teaching at USC and helping with the Department’s TV growth and influence. What do you teach and how will things change over the next few years?

I’m a Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at USC and I presently teach 2 courses: 1) The World of Television: From Idea to On the Air, and Everything In Between, and 2) The Writers” Room and its sister class, Straight to Series, which is a 2-part course over the Fall and Spring semesters. The World of TV is 15 weeks of lectures and guest speakers: studio and network presidents, chief packaging agents, development and current execs, pilot directors, showrunners and research execs for testing and scheduling, all of whom explain what they do and what they need from creators. And to that end, each student creates a series project which “morphs” over the semester with each new piece of the creative puzzle that is revealed by these experts regarding series creation. The final exam is “pitching” the 10 minute presentations to real buyers. The most exciting things are the super-fresh ideas and perspectives that are coming out of the minds of these 26-year-old grad students! It’s the invention of the new media!…I’m determined we’ll get a pilot made one of these days!

The second course which I co-lead with Gail Katz, is designed to replicate the new and vigorous industry business model of Straight-to-Series: meaning a writers room of six students will write 4 scripts of a serialized drama which by the second semester, and those 4 teleplays will be produced as 15-minute episodes—the first as “pilot” and the last as season-ending cliffhanger. In today’s Hollywood getting a firm production order of 12 episodes with no script up front is “sexy,” but without the prep and comfort of shooting a pilot and assessing it with testing and creative down time, a straight-to-series order can backfire with casting and story misfires…REWRITE!!

Forty students are involved in all production roles: casting, directing, editing, music, operating cameras, production design, even building a standing set on campus on our sound stage there. Six professors in their elite fields meet with their respective student teams but the whole class meets often to watch the dailies they shoot on weekends…the students see the full process—warts and all—and the final content is amazing!

As far as the creative process, it is stressed to put one’s own experience into the piece and/or characters wherever possible. Authenticity and honesty are paramount in television and it’s imperative to know what one’s show is about: redemption, injustice, destiny, race, moral imperative, the lies we tell, love, family, survival, envy, etc. And I emphasize to students that a good idea comes from anywhere. Be smart enough to take hold of one (an idea), whoever pitches it. TV is a collaborative art–get used to it!

You have had an extensive career at Winkler-Rich, Aaron Spelling Productions, MGM, Paramount, Disney, and as President of WBTV during one of the great reigns of television. You started your company Tony Jonas Productions, and you teach at USC. Can you share some of your perspectives given your expansive career?

With studios—and that’s been most of my career—you have to be in all the businesses. You need to be in drama, comedy, reality, animation, network, streaming, games, now documentaries, limited as well as multi-seasoned series, etc–all because you never know what will be breaking out in any given year-and you better have what’s hot and be able to dominate in those fields. And that DOESN’T mean getting in on what’s currently trending, because that’s already too late—you have to CREATE trends-not copy them. You have to develop what’s NOT on television and that’s continually difficult in a 500-scripted show universe.

Vertical integration has been around for years, but although studios’ strengths have always been their libraries and hundreds of thousands of negatives—in all arenas ownership is consistently being striated and carved up among partners and platforms with airtime real estate for sale–it costs to get on a schedule. And inventories can shrink when now streamers are satisfied with far fewer episodes where by year 4, a show might stop bringing in new subscribers and seasons are shorter. AND you have the competition from agencies who now produce TV series because of their enormous appetite and ownership of all types of businesses—i.e. the rodeo, car racing, golf tournaments, beauty pageants, art festivals, comic book publishers, unusual disruptor sporting events, etc…so while the pie has gotten somewhat larger, more players are gobbling at it! I had the pleasure and luck of working with volume suppliers…all good…

At Tony Jonas Productions and at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the rules are similar-risk-take often–but thankfully you can focus on far less volume…at Warners we had 24 series on the air because we had a solid budget for talent and we chose well…but in narrower worlds, you can be far more selective which passion projects to pick from. In the first year of my company, I had only 5 scripts in development so I was able to focus on launching a drama “Queer as Folk” into a “put” 22-episode order at Showtime…while at USC you’re going to shoot SOMETHING, so you have a different mantra altogether–make the material as strong as can be, because it gets made regardless if it’s ready…the student must learn through one’s successes AND failures. I suppose that’s not so different, after all…

Why did you decide to start your own production company?

From day one, wanting to be in film production, writing and producing was always the goal. Although my first job at EMI-TV topped out at associate producer, I gravitated to several studio posts as an exec until I had my first opportunity to become a producer at Disney. But even then, three weeks into it I got a call from Lorimar to come run drama. I finally took the job as long as I would only develop for 2 years which would be followed by a 2-year producer deal. What ended up happening was a string of amazing opportunity–and luck!–where for the following 8 years, I continued to re-up my deal twice more–helping to expand the studio from 5 series on the air to 23 series including “ER,” “Friends,” and “The West Wing.” Each deal was a 2+2 to produce by year 3…by the time Les (Moonves) left for CBS, I’d gone 5 years waiting to become a producer (!) but I then became president of Warner Bros. Television. Four years later, I’m happy to say I finally got my “break” in a producing pod deal lasting 3 more years at WBTV where my first series outing, “Queer as Folk,” ran as a hit for five years on Showtime, Inc. The next multi-year producing deal came at Disney where I exec-produced the Rome B.C. actioner “Empire” and exec produced multi-camera comedy “Lost at Home,” starring Connie Britton.

What advice can you offer to a newcomer or junior executive in the television business?

The best advice is to be available to opportunities that come your way. Don’t obsess about what your first job will be–your journey as a creator or business person will take a lot of turns along an unexpected path—that’s ok. That’s even good! Soak up all the experiences you can, even if they aren’t your first love. Once you’re “in,” you’re IN! Then start looking around for what’s next… My first job was a “go-fer” job getting sandwiches and out of town dailies at LAX at 3am….and I claim I was the best sandwich guy EMI-TV ever had…until one day the president of the company put out a memo to the 30 employees of his TV movie company that he needed storylines to help a movie about a southern sheriff become a back-door pilot. That night I worked out over 20 storylines and turned them in the next morning….two days later I was in the president’s office one-on-one and with a smile on his face he said, “who are you?”…and I said, “I’m the sandwich guy.” And he said, “Not anymore…” thing I knew I was co-writing with the star of his next film and I was now creating new ideas for specific talent who worked with his packaging agents at William Morris.

I also believe in taking jobs at smaller companies because you can learn faster from more highly-accessible execs or producers or writers…..giant studios are compartmentalized institutions–you can get stuck in tight places. Still fine, but in smaller companies you can stroll into business affairs and listen to phone protocols on deals and/or music licenses, or stick your nose into a development meeting, or study a board in the production office—if you’re delivering scripts to a studio lot, take an extra half-hour to peruse who’s where and what do they do? It’s all out there for the taking…be bold: call up a producer or exec you admire…see if you can get 3 minutes on the phone talking about what you like and/or see in their work–2 out of 10 will get on the line!

Problem-solving has been a big part of your achievements throughout your career. Can you speak to how problem-solving has worked for you?

Probably the best example of solving a creative problem was my experience at Paramount Television where I created a show called “MacGyver,” nee “Hourglass.” It was 1983 and I was Director of Drama Series and my president of TV said our pilots at ABC were screening poorly in New York because they were shown after lunch-time cocktails between 3-6pm; network and sales execs were falling asleep mid-pilot! Although the screening times were his responsibility, I took the challenge to heart and began developing a series that would be wall-to-wall action and improvisation so no network exec–at any time of day–would be prone to fall asleep. TV series heroes in the early ’80’s all had guns, but the “expediter” I had in mind was armed only with a cool head under fire, knowledge of simple physics, and lightning ingenuity, improvisation, and “short-cut” artistry. I pictured a guy who knew how to get cross-town in 6 minutes rather than the 35 minutes it would take anyone else…and he’d use a penny from his pocket to connect two electrical nodes to spring open a jammed and suffocating elevator. I sold it over the phone to ABC, gave it to Henry Winkler who had series commitments, reeled in writer Lee Zlotoff, and in 12 months it was on the air. Over time it became a world-wide hit and again it lives on CBS, presently…problem still solved!

Is there a skillset you can attribute to your success?

I have to believe whatever skill set I have is my unfettered love of telling stories and pushing them onto film—there is actual joy in nursing an idea, a dream, or a photograph, or a piece of history into a narrative with import, humor, and cleverness….series must have surprise, nuance, and be about something…and then there are all the creative skills that have to be hitched to a concept and script such as directing smarts, acting skills, and salesmanship. So the series–or in class as a professor at USC—all must be engineered with real leadership, and during a production that sometimes means being a benevolent dictator because decisions must be made, and a final decision and/or cut, must be delivered…and as a teacher, it means leading a discussion that must, and can only be, built upon student decision-making.

Another “must-have” skill is to stay current with the industry which means reading all the trade papers and watching all the series so you can be fluent in the mergers in town so you can foresee who needs what, and it also means “treasure-hunting” and scouring publications of books, drifting through bookstores, reading the LA and NY Times religiously, and networking with the people you grew up with in the business…essentially the idea is to stay fluent in everything and to keep that discipline alive. If you’re writing you should have your butt in a chair two hours every day, regardless if you write a single word…and if you write a story or script or book, complete it; if you don’t complete it, you don’t get to count it… I may not fully believe in myself every day, but I will persevere to the fullest and more often than not, feel fulfilled by the opportunities I’ve created for myself and for others…

Why do you think people love entertainment?

This is pretty subjective. There’s no scientific metric to ascertain what entertainment provides and no data to prove whether it’s an actual human need, or not. I tend to believe it can provide an escape from one’s everyday life–life is hard! But rather than just escape, I also believe there is a desire to FIND and REMAIN, and DELVE DEEPER into our feelings and explore who and what we are so maybe it is a need—to connect with other human beings, to know we’re not all completely alone on this earth–which essentially we are by the definition of our oneness. But knowing we aren’t eternally and completely alone is comforting and it provides us with storytelling; it gives us a language to share experience, to feel emotions simultaneously—to laugh and cry feels good…to think about how we live and treat each other is valuable…to be reminded of great things, and also be reminded of horrible things we may want to avoid repeating….exposing human frailty may produce pathos and empathy …entertainment may in fact be the most methodical and effective way to communicate because one needn’t defend against a person telling it to your face, but rather in entertaining and enjoyable terms that only film, dance, music, and literature might do…who knows…it’s all a mystery, thank goodness…

How would you describe the state of current TV?

TV is pretty much a microcosm of the universe, itself—it expands and contracts like the cosmos. While mergers and new businesses are created every day, there’s similarly cord-cutting and the disappearing-act of syndication to balance it all out. It’s clearly the time of television…and like a super nova it has exploded in a way nobody could see coming-well, except for Ted Turner who saw 500 channels in our future…(but 500 individual scripted series?…probably not.) With the competition to win the most subscribers, eyeballs, or hearts and minds—the metrics to define audiences and their commercial wants is the expanded game-and it’s not even what you’re watching…it’s what’s watching you!… TV Tech now not only knows what you’re watching but for how long, which commercials you skip, where your eyeballs are trained on the screen, and what shoes you’re wearing!! As far as the adage “Content is King” is concerned, even that’s not 100% clear anymore…streamers like Amazon aren’t merely producing Hollywood content to compete, but as Barry Diller notes, “they’re giving you stuff!” Netflix and Apple are out front in this new game…

So boiling it down, obtaining personal information is apparently a competing new king in the castle…privacy is shrinking and mass marketing is engulfing the world… Netflix has 160 million subscribers and is growing steadily…but Disney strikes back with the Fox and Hulu deals. AT&T took TimeWarner, Comcast takes Sky…who will bite after Viacom and CBS merge??? Whither YouTube? Fortunately, amidst all these galactic-sized media companies, and their multiple brands within, they can still service niche audiences so no one’s left out… The one thing I think is safe, is not a sudden plethora of weak-kneed, poorly conceived and executed series just to fill pipelines with more product as required as long as the smart and tasteful execs that have built the great brands already in existence remain in charge, great television will get made—the only thing that can weaken the content-making machinery is if the finest talent becomes overloaded and thinned-out by the desperate needs of this most recent arms race–protect the creators and the creators will protect you!

Anything you would like to add?

Wonder Women: nothing is as exciting as the rise of female auteurs—women who create, write, produce, direct, and star in their own creations: Issa Rae, Sharon Horgan, Erskine/Konkle, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Lena Dunham, Frankie Shaw, Pam Adlon, Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey to name just a few….these are super talents who do it all—”super-hyphenates”–and the work isn’t just good, it’s spectacular in craft, incisive in content, and raises the bar for everyone willing to share their electrifying voices and take the greatest risks. The studio and network platforms that support this work are to be equally commended for such daring. More!!!!

Off the Bubble: interesting to see that the last two years in broadcast television have seen the least amount of attrition and cancellation of shows per the upfronts….better to stay with and nurture what’s on, rather than the instinct (desperation?) to invest in new (and unproven) franchises…is this a question of economy or philosophy?… or Peak TV quantity versus quality? Regardless, in an industry where seasons are shorter and fees are reduced, a sigh of relief for the hard work of thousands that goes into every venture–the trap door under every show isn’t swinging so easily–for now, perhaps.

Stories Under Fire: series storytelling is under fire-but in a good way…never has so much been demonstrated by the sheer plasticity and malleability of structuring and unfolding narratives in new and myriad forms: linear or analog storytelling is still dominant on broadcast platforms, and whether 100-episode series or limited series, the episodic form has a beginning, middle, and end and you generally watch week to week…not so exclusively anymore: non-linear TV includes DVR, streaming, VOD, OTT, mobile (Quibi) and interactive (“Bandersnatch” and Instagram’s SKAM.) The 48-minute drama and 24-minute sitcom has given way to stories that just take a certain time to fill by their very specific nature…if an episodic story can be told in 5-8 minutes, so be it!…and binge-watching has obviously changed how series are structured–cliffhangers are different because the likelihood is the viewer/user will stay tuned because viewers can skip over main and end credits by pushing a button…the traditional act break has been eliminated in direct-to-consumer so the story can run like a little movie…..and with interactivity you can design the branching storylines to your whim…on Instagram you can converse with the characters on a show…crazy new stuff! Somebody once said sonnets and poetry needed to be a certain length and form to succeed or be worthwhile—then somebody invented haiku in 17 syllables and all bets were off…it’s happened in TV now! Let storytelling continue to evolve–it won’t break.

Diane Wang is member of JHRTS. She has formerly worked in Finance and at start-ups in San Francisco before becoming a Literary Agent at The Library Agency. Besides reading, she also enjoys coffee, hiking, watching other people on stage, and occasionally posting on her board game blog. She can be reached at