In this installment, Livecchi profiles Jim Ackerman, executive vice president of primetime alternative for CNBC, who is responsible for the NBCUniversal-owned cable net’s primetime strategy, production and development.
Jim Ackerman knows a fraud when he sees one. He set his bullshit meter on high a long time ago and it’s been in fifth gear ever since.
Maybe that’s why as a programmer, he always wants his stories to be completely real. “I never believed creating storylines for shows would be more compelling than the truth,” he says. “[At CNBC] we don’t manipulate shit — we stay true to our characters and their journey.”
Jim’s own truth reads something like a Leonard Cohen song of loss, with hardened pathways and hope in hidden places. He is the youngest of three children, born to parents too young to anticipate the relentless demands of a growing family and a new economy. When Jim was young, his dad owned a printing factory on Hudson Street in New York City. As the times and technology changed, Jim’s dad didn’t, and eventually he lost his business in the early Seventies.
The Ackermans persevered but at home, an even harsher reality was stirring. “I come from a clan with a lot of addiction issues,” Jim tells me. “My family has been ravaged by drugs. It took the lives of my two older siblings.”
At this, Jim’s eyes turn glassy and he continues. “Like David Lynch said, there’s darkness everywhere. But shitty things happen to everyone. My number one thing in life now is making certain my own kids create a meaningful life that’s really theirs. I want them to grow up and truly be independent — you know, to wantme but not need me.”
When Jim’s dad died, he retreated from the world. Nothing made sense, nothing seemed fair. He had recently met a woman but creating a new relationship on the heels of losing such a special one seemed impossible. “It took a few weeks, but with a little distance I realized that girl I met was pretty awesome,” he recalls. “I finally called her and, not long after, we were living together. Thirty years later, she’s the mother of my two children and the most stable, loving force of my life.”
He recalls another poignant moment that cemented his desire to become a buyer rather than a seller of television shows. Ackerman was in his twenties, working any freelance job he could find. One day, he was directing background actors on a Neil Simon movie. That’s where, with one small gesture, everything changed for him.
“The actors I was directing were [supposed to be] blurs in the background. You literally could not make out their faces,” he recounts. “On one take, I saw an actor dressed as a business man check his watch and hurry along as if late to a meeting. He was playing a role. He knew he was a blur but he still was playing a role. It dawned on me — the chances of this 40-year-old guy achieving his dreams were slim. That’s when I decided I needed a new path for myself. It was liberating because I didn’t want to become ‘that guy’, pursuing something that was never going to happen.”
What Jim became was the guy who, alongside Jeff Olde, Michael Hirschorn and Shelly Tatro, built VH1 into one of the most definitive pop culture brands of its time. “We had a five or six year run where we were super relevant,” he says. “We were doing silly, frivolous shows that had a subtext of something smart about them.”
Those shows were created in an era of great experimentation. Jim grumbles about the state of the development process in today’s crowded media landscape. “Sometimes when you do pilots you are so trying to nail it. Shouldn’t you mess around a little to find out where you want to go?” he maintains.
“I will fight for shows that are ‘bad’ that have great potential. I’m old school that way.”
He recalls a time at VH1 when he had sold through a series with the rapper Jim Jones. The show broke the fourth wall, exposing the capricious TV producer-artist relationship. After the glad handing and back-slapping of the development offsite was over, Jim realized he sold a show that was a one-note joke.
He begged his boss not to order the series, but to give him a chance to re-develop it into something more sustainable. That show would become Love & Hip-Hop, one of the most successful and lucrative franchises in the history of VH1′s existence.
After a decade at VH1, it was time for something new. In 2012, Jim took the CNBC development gig and discovered there was a great opportunity to build upon the power of the brand in primetime. “How often do you get a chance to create something new with such an open runway?” he says now.
That runway came with its share of challenges. “I had a false start in my early time at CNBC,” he admits. “I was trying to find shows in popular spaces that would connect with a wealthy demographic. It took a minute to see what I really needed to do was staring me in the face all along.”
Jim saw a lot of friends getting let go from corporate jobs, and felt this undertow of American self-reliance propelling people into small businesses.
“Almost everyone has a desire for a side hustle; everyone thinks they have a great idea for a business,” he offers. “I thought there was great opportunity to tap into people’s creativity and showcase how they express themselves through [small] business. To tap into that fear, that as a small business owner, you are laying everything on the line. The pivot paid off and CNBC began growing inch by bloody inch and the growth was real.”
One way Jim found success was by developing shows around entrepreneurs willing to have skin in the game. He remembers Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis, now also the star of CNBC’s The Profit, looking at him and promising to invest $2,000,000 of his own money on the series. “I saw two million reasons to do the show,” Jim says.
Ackerman is now looking to broaden his audience. He’s taking a bet on re-booting Deal or No Deal later this year with CNBC committing to 30 one-hour episodes. “This could be a big tent-pole night for us,” he says.
Jim was always one to dive deep into the different worlds he develops in. At VH1 it was with hip-hop artists. At CNBC, he continues to learn from highly accomplished entrepreneurs. Whether it’s with ballers or billionaires, Jim has the same amount of reverence and gratitude for being invited into their worlds.
As our conversation comes to a close, Ackerman reflects again on how his family has changed his life. “When my kids were 11 and 8, I remember being in Italy, we had just finished dinner at some beautiful little café,” he says. “As we walked up the road around midnight, I heard a beautiful piece of opera. I thought of the food, my wife, kids, the beautiful architecture and a sense of love was filling me up. I broke down and started bawling uncontrollably.”
I guess Jim is right after all. If you have the courage to face who and what you are, and can get past the sting of what life sometimes deals you, the truth underneath it all is where happiness really lies.
“Life can be so brutal,” he says, “but there are moments when all the potential and beauty in the world can even move a cynic like me.”