By Meg James
Los Angeles Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Q&A with Bela Bajaria, president of Universal Television. Bajaria got her start in the business with a job at CBS in 1996 as an assistant in the movies and miniseries department when the network was cranking out 65 made-for-TV movies a year. It wasn’t long before she was offered of an executive position. Bajaria’s advice…”You have to put yourself out there because you don’t know who is paying attention.”
The gig: Bela Bajaria is president of Universal Television, NBCUniversal’s TV studio that produces shows such as “Law & Order: SVU,” “The Mindy Project,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Bates Motel,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and soon, “Emerald City.” She is one of the highest-ranking Indian-American executives in entertainment.
American dreams: The eldest of three children, Bajaria was born in London and spent her early years in London and Zambia. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 8. “My family is Indian, but my parents and their family were all born and raised in East Africa. We really moved here for the American dream. In the late 70s, you could come to America and you could be anything.”
At the carwash: Her parents owned carwashes, which helped to instill a strong work ethic and a sense of purpose. She and her sister worked as cashiers on weekends. “I felt like I had an amazing strong family foundation, it was very rooted and very grounded … . My parents came to America, to Los Angeles, without really knowing anyone. They started a life from scratch. I felt pressure, not pressure really, but drive.”
Miss India USA: After high school, a family friend suggested she enter a Miss India USA pageant. “I thought it would be fun to discover the India culture on my own terms, through my own identity.” She won the Miss LA India contest, then became Miss India USA, and, in 1991, she was crowned Miss India Universe. “I met these Indian women from all over the world. It was so interesting and we had a similar bond.” She then spent a few years running a nonprofit that helped children in poor countries.
Hollywood bound: She wanted to work in entertainment, but not in front of the camera. “It wasn’t like I was immersed in American entertainment, but I always liked the idea of storytelling on a big scale.” Her resume stood out; she got a job at CBS in 1996 as an assistant in the movies and miniseries department when the network was cranking out 65 made-for-TV movies a year.
The assistant: “I read all of the scripts, I knew all of the executives and I read their development.” She didn’t know historical movie references, so she spent hours in CBS’ basement videotape library, studying old films. After little more than a year, she left for Warner Bros. but within 11 weeks, CBS had lured her back with the offer of an executive position. “You have to put yourself out there because you don’t know who is paying attention.”
Joan of Arc: Bajaria was promoted by early 2002 to run CBS’ entire movies and miniseries division after working on big projects, such as “Joan of Arc.” “That was sort of the big break. When you are running the department, you are managing people and I had proven myself with some higher-profile movies.” Within a few years, an industry shift was underway and fewer TV network movies were being made. She then requested a move to CBS’ production studio to develop cable shows.
Credit Elvis: When Comcast bought NBCUniversal in 2011 and installed Robert Greenblatt, a former Showtime chief, as NBC’s entertainment president, and he asked Bajaria to run NBC’s TV studio. “He had produced Elvis, the miniseries, for me so it was Elvis who brought us together.” NBC’s TV studio had been gutted by the previous regime and was in rebuilding mode. “Because I like building things, this was the dream situation. It was like a startup, coming in and getting to put a team together, and building a studio but with the backing of a large company with an impressive legacy.”
Mindy: Universal Television wanted to sell shows to other networks, not just NBC, but agents and producers were skeptical. Then came a show championed by Bajaria, “The Mindy Project,” with a fresh take on single life starring Mindy Kaling, an Indian-American. The Fox network bought it. “That became the turning point, an amazing piece of talent, a great show that was sold to another network.” This summer, Bajaria will celebrate her fifth anniversary running the studio.
Philosophy: “I did every job, including this one, like I was running my own family business. I like to say Universal Television is my carwash. I’ve tried to create a culture of community with a familial feel.”
Culture blend: Earlier in her life, she struggled to blend American culture with her Indian heritage. “East meets West really came together for me when I embraced it, when I understood that it was a strength, and owning it.”
Daughter, wife, mom: “It is really important to keep perspective, my job is very important to me, I like it very much, I spend a lot of time doing my job, but it’s not my identity.” Bajaria, 45, and her husband, writer Doug Prochilo, have three children and a goldendoodle dog, Shanti. A favorite activity is doing yoga at home with her kids.