Class of ’93 | Michael Sluchan C’93’s story about loving stories begins inside his childhood home. Every evening, he’d curl up on the couch to watch Joanie chase Chachi or root for Charlie’s angels to save the day. (“I wasn’t very discriminating,” he says of his preteen tastes.) He eventually graduated to film-studies classes at Penn, and later joined in the Harry Potter craze.
“I’ve always loved the fact that you can just create these worlds,” he says. “I especially love serialized books where you can see character growth, and I think that’s what TV series allow you to do, too: you can really watch the characters evolve.”
Several decades after tuning in religiously to Happy Days and The Love Boat, Sluchan still spends his time thinking about fictional characters in unusual situations—only now he gets paid for his opinions. As vice president of original scripted series programming at USA Network, he helps develop new shows and oversee current ones. He made sure Monk, The Starter Wife,and The Dead Zone allran smoothly, and more recently he developed (and still oversees) Royal Pains, Necessary Roughness, In Plain Sight,and Political Animals.
“No two days are ever alike because you never know what problems or issues are going to crop up in a show’s production or development,” he says. “Because we’re dealing with so many different creative personalities, we really are serving as project managers on everything that we do.”
The other day, for instance, he was in Las Vegas for a Royal Pains shoot. Filming there was actually part of a broader deal with the city, and Vegas officials set strict parameters for each shooting location. As a result, he found himself as the go-between for the Royal Pains cast and crew, the show’s ad salespeople, and the city, making sure deadlines were met and agreements followed while guarding the show’s creative freedom.
Along with on-set drop-ins, Sluchan does a lot of reading. He reads every outline, script, and revision for each of the four shows he currently oversees, along with samples, pilots, and script submissions for new shows. It adds up to hundreds of pages each week and results in frequent all-day read-a-thons on Saturdays.
“I do more reading [at USA] than I did at Penn, and I was a history major and an English minor,” he says with a chuckle. His undergraduate experiences dissecting literature certainly help, though. “I think that so much of reading and giving notes on a script are things you learn in English class,” he says. “Stuff like, ‘What makes a good story? Are these good characters? Is the structure clear? What would help with the characterization?’ You really need to recognize what works and what doesn’t—and why.”
Asked what makes a script ‘work,’ he points to “a moment to fall in love with—something you’ve never seen before that makes you fall in love and relate to it a certain way. Usually, there will be this moment where you just get it.”
Sluchan entered the TV world on the ground floor. A few months shy of graduating from Penn, he’d had one of those Oh-crap-I have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing-with-the-rest-of-my-life moments so familiar to liberal-arts majors. A friend’s older sister worked for ABC News. Sluchan loved television and was well-versed in history and current events. Why not give it a try? he thought.
He landed a phone interview, then didn’t hear back for nearly three months. The call eventually came in August of 1993. Would he like to come work as a production secretary?
“If ABC News is offering a job, you don’t turn them down,” he says now. In his “very entry-level” position, he booked travel and crews and began to learn about budgets. “I liked it,” he says, “but that wasn’t where my passion was.”
He discovered his true calling while on vacation in Los Angeles, walking through the West Coast branch of ABC, surrounded by posters of Mork nanu-nanu-ing and Richie Cunningham slurping a malt. For the first time, he thought about the behind-the-scenes people who coined Fonzie’s signature Ayyy and created tangled situations for Laverne and Shirley to unravel.
“I realized there was this whole other side of television that I’d never even thought of,” he says. “Suddenly I was very determined to get a job at ABC—but in entertainment.”
Sluchan eventually landed in ABC’s business-affairs department on the West Coast, then became assistant to the network’s head of movies and miniseries. TV movies were big business at the time, and ABC produced about 35 each year, he says. That output ranged from the wacky-titled (She Woke Up Pregnant) to the big-starred (First Do No Harm with Meryl Streep and Allison Janney) to the eerie (a Shining miniseries based on Stephen King’s book). He left for Cosgrove-Meurer Productions in 1998 and arrived at USA Network the following year. He’s been there in a variety of roles ever since, and in 2010 was named an Amazing Gay Man in Showbiz by the Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment Reaching Up (POWER UP) for his work in television and on the Outfest board of directors.
Now in the midst of a two-year term on the board of governors for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences—the group that gives out Emmy awards—Sluchan says he gets to “vote for fun categories” and, of course, attend both the Emmys and the Creative Arts Emmys. A pretty cool switch for the kid who grew up watching it all at home.
—Molly Petrilla C’06