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Universal TV’s Pearlena Igbokwe on Recession, Writers Strike Concerns

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Amid mounting recession concerns in Hollywood and a potential labor strike to contend with, Pearlena Igbokwe is shining with a great deal of optimism in her position as chairman of Comcast’s Universal Studio Group.

Igbokwe spoke with Variety’s co-editor in chief Cynthia Littleton Friday during her headlinder conversation at Variety‘s Entertainment Summit at CES about her creative and strategic vision for the four studios she oversees, Universal Television, UCP, Universal Television Alternative Studio and Universal International Studios, which collectively encompass approximately 120 projects across more than 25 platforms worldwide.

One show singled out in particular was the BAFTA and Peabody-award winning comedy “We Are Lady Parts,” which is produced by the studio’s international production arm and airs on Channel 4 in the U.K. and streams on NBCU’s Peacock in the U.S. Igbokwe used the Nida Manzoor-created show following an all-Muslim woman British punk rock band as one of the ways in which she is able to “take people’s singular vision and put it out into the world and hope that other people react the way you do.”

With macroeconomic events putting pressure on Hollywood, and every other industry, stirring recession fears and spurring cost-cutting initiatives, Igbokwe addressed how she approaches concerns within her studios.

“It’s a little bit of, people are like, well, we think we’re headed towards a recession — and so everyone is immediately acting as if we’re there and there’s all this belt-tightening and they’re laying off thousands of people,” Igbokwe said. “And I go, well, are we there yet? We’re not there yet. This is all on the fears that it’s going to happen and once everyone starts acting that way, it feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve been asked the question, are people going to stop buying TV shows? People are not going to stop buying TV shows, they need TV shows. The streamers need things for you to watch because you’re subscribing and you’re paying, and so they’re going to be making things. That’s why I love being on the studio side: we’re the people making things. And if you’re making good things and good shows, there will be a marketplace for it.”

Several of those “good shows” that Universal has in its lineup, and others that are currently being developed, are produced by top-tier creatives that Igbokwe prizes, including Dick Wolf, Jordan Peele, Amy Poehler, John Legend, Elliot Page and Emmy-winning “Hacks” trio Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky.

Igbokwe has spent years learning how to cultivate these kinds of relationships through her time on both the studio and network side, having served as executive vice president of drama programming at NBC after spending 20 years at Showtime.

With all that TV industry knowledge under her belt, Igbokwe also weighed in on the possibility of a Writer’s Guild of America strike, something Hollywood hasn’t dealt with since 2008, which she likens to the foreboding thoughts of a recession in being another of those “potential self-fulfilling prophecies.”

“There’s a lot of people going, there’s going to be a strike. So if that’s the attitude, I guess there’s going to be a strike, if that’s the attitude,” Igbokwe said. “What I would say is the issues on both sides are very important. But having just come out of 2020, where there was a six-month work stoppage and there were a lot of people who could not work, could not make a living, I would really like to not go back to that again. And we couldn’t make TV shows, and there were a lot of networks who didn’t have product. I think there are a lot of people who would like to just hope that we can sit down at the table and figure out the issues so that people can continue working. And I think that’s the thing that people should not forget, is that there’s a lot of below-the-line people who this will affect.”

The Variety Entertainment Summit at CES was held Friday at the Aria in Las Vegas. Topics included the business and creative direction of multi-platform storytelling; Web3 for the entertainment industry; what’s next for the creator economy; cross-generation marketing and the future business outlook for 2023.

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