The head of scripted content for MTV Entertainment Studios reveals how he landed ‘Yellowstone’ for Paramount Network and the one question he always asks in pitch meetings.
NOV. 11 2022
By Nicole Bitette
Photos by David Williams
When Betty White needed a ride to the table read for the pilot of Hot in Cleveland, Keith Cox volunteered. When MC Hammer was interrupted at the dentist’s office with an offer to join the first season of The Surreal Life, Cox made the call. And when Taylor Sheridan made a late-night pitch for a show about a New York mob boss in Kansas City, Cox was on the other end of the line.
Cox has made a career out of doing what it takes so that talent will agree to make a show with him. As a producer and development executive, he’s responsible for pioneering one of the first celebrity reality TV shows, bringing hit scripted series to TV Land, selling the #1 half-hour in the world for Netflix in Emily in Paris, launching the #1 TV show in America with Yellowstone, and launching the #1 series on Paramount+ with 1883.
“It’s really about passion,” says Cox, president of scripted for MTV Entertainment Studios. “Creators and talent realize that if you respect their craft and you believe in their show, you will do anything to make their show win.”
Cox spoke to the Paramount Newsroom ahead of a big November, with the season 5 premiere of Yellowstone and the series premiere of Tulsa King (which will stream exclusively on Paramount+ on November 13th with a sneak peek after an episode of Yellowstone on Paramount Network on Nov. 20th).
Nicole Bitette: As president of scripted for MTV Entertainment Studios, what’s your focus?
Keith Cox: It’s about discovering and creating content to fuel our own networks and platforms. We make all of our own shows in-house. We are really focused. I have a small team internally and since we don’t deal with big outside studios like Sony and Warner Brothers, we get to keep the vision for our shows very clear and support our creators' vision without too many voices creating static. Once we build it, our boss Chris McCarthy, president and CEO, Paramount Media Networks & MTV Entertainment Studios, decides where in the Paramount ecosystem to launch the show. It is a great luxury to have shows on Paramount Network, BET+, Paramount+, and now Showtime. It’s an exciting time.
NB: You are credited with bringing Yellowstone to Paramount Network. Can you describe that process?
KC: Yellowstone was a unique situation. I heard Taylor Sheridan was taking out a drama series and the pitch was, ‘The Godfather in Montana.’ I knew there was nothing like that on TV. So many shows lately are based in, or catered to, audiences only in New York or Los Angeles. I was raised in the South, so I always look for ideas that speak to all of America. The idea has to be undeniable, but it’s nice when the show is based in a very unique area. I really loved Taylor’s two movies (Sicario and Hell or High Water) so I knew his writing was stellar.
We were also lucky to have the first two episodes of Yellowstone available to read. Once we read them, we all knew we had something special. Then, to Bob Bakish’s credit, he quickly read the scripts and agreed to take a huge swing by ordering Yellowstone straight to series. We could only land this series with an aggressive offer and Bob supported us from day one.
We flew Taylor in from his ranch in Wyoming. It was me, Taylor, and our Executive Producer David Glasser sitting in our conference room talking about the vision for the series and where the characters were going. I remember describing in detail specific scenes in the scripts that really spoke to me. I think Taylor truly appreciated that we actually read the scripts and recounted specific moments that stood out.
Since we were just launching Paramount Network, we told him he could be the face of Paramount Network, and Yellowstone could be the defining show.
I told Taylor, ‘You're not leaving until you sell us this.’ Then I turned to David and I said, ‘Please make this happen.’ David winked at me and said, ‘I got you.’ The rest is history.
NB: What was production like?
KC: It was a wild production. Taylor wrote every episode and then decided to direct every episode. That rarely happens on TV. Taylor just felt he wanted to make sure his vision was cemented. The show almost got shut down a few times. There were times we thought we might have to sell this epic series. We actually didn't even finish filming the Season 1 finale until we got picked up for Season 2. It was a beast of a production, but the support from above never wavered and in the end, I think we all agree it was worth it.
NB: How did the upcoming series Tulsa King with Sylvester Stallone come about?
KC: Taylor called me one night—he tends to call me late at night—to discuss something about his new Paramount+ series, Mayor of Kingstown. Then he asked, ‘Can I make your year? I said, ‘ummm sure.’ He said I have an amazing new script, you're gonna get it tomorrow. The show is about a mob guy from New York who has to go to Kansas City (initial working title), and I’m going to get Stallone to star in it. I was shocked. I just kept thinking, would Stallone really do a TV series? The script came in and it was fantastic. It had a very unique voice and premise. And then, lo and behold…he got Stallone.
It’s such a luxury to have the number one show on TV, and then have the ability to launch other series behind it…You can only do that in linear."
NB: What makes a show like Yellowstone become a hit, and what makes it worthy of a franchise?
KC: Every hit show has to start with a very loyal fanbase. Fans are your best marketing tool. Word of mouth is critical. It's authentic. I think initially everyone thought Yellowstone was just a Western—Westerns can be slow and dusty—but we knew Yellowstone was different and I think the audiences were pleasantly surprised with the tone of Yellowstone.
Franchises come about when an audience loves a show and they want more. Franchises depend on how far the world of the show can expand and how curious fans are about new settings and characters. In season one of Yellowstone, we had flashbacks of young Beth, young Rip, and young John Dutton. So, in a way, Taylor was already exploring how his characters became who they are today. Turning Yellowstone into a franchise came about when Chris McCarthy said he wanted a prequel to establish how the Dutton’s actually found themselves in Montana. At first, Taylor was hesitant, but then he finally cracked the concept, and I think he would admit it’s some of his best work to date.
Franchises can also help launch new shows. It’s such a luxury to have the number one show on TV, and then have the ability to launch new series behind it. We aired sneak peeks of Paramount+’s Mayor of Kingstown and 1883 behind Yellowstone. We really wanted to expose the large audience that Yellowstone delivers to these new shows and then motivate them to go to Paramount+ to watch the rest of the series. We’ll do the same with Tulsa King and 1923. It’s the best tool to have and you can only do that in linear.
NB: Tell me a little bit about your career. What was your first professional role?
KC: My first role in entertainment after graduating from UCLA was as an assistant at Columbia Pictures TV in the drama department. However, my first executive role was here in New York, launching FX. We had this beautiful building on Fifth Avenue where we shot all the shows. It was really exciting being a part of a new cable channel launch. I remember literally sitting there in the studio when the light turned on and we were ‘live’ across the country.
Then I left New York and went back to Los Angeles to work with Warner Brothers in the TV comedy department as Vice President of Comedy. It was a wild time in the TV business then. We had 22 sitcoms on the air so it was a great time to be at Warner Brothers. We had both Friends and ER crushing it at NBC and we got to sell series to all the networks.
From there, I went to work for two producers, Bob Greenblatt and David Janollari, who had a deal at Fox to make comedies and dramas. Bob then went to Showtime and I left to go to The WB to help launch their unscripted department. At that time the WB was only focusing on comedies and dramas so it was a great challenge to develop a new genre for the channel.
NB: Was a move to unscripted something you pursued?
KC: No, not at all. At the time I had only worked in scripted TV. I met with the president of the WB, who I had been closely working with during my time at Warner Brothers, he said unscripted was very similar to scripted, you need to tell great stories. It is all about storytelling.
NB: Do you have a favorite unscripted project that you’ve worked on?
KC: Two, but for different reasons. When I bought The Surreal Life I later found out every other network in town passed on it. That said, my gut told me there was something really interesting in the concept of uniting celebrities who would probably never really be in the same room. The tricky part was casting. We had no casting director at the time and it wasn't traditional casting. I ended up having to call MC Hammer, who happened to be at the dentist's office. I called Corey Feldman at home. I loved this series because it was nice to create a show with a unique group of beloved stars. I’d go up to the house where we were shooting 24/7 after work and would just hang out in video village and just watch. Vanilla Ice would be there singing. Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker) would be in her room reading the Bible. It was like nothing I had ever seen on TV.
My other favorite was Beauty and the Geek. The pitch was simple. Can women and men who have little in common actually find a true connection? The show surprised me with how honest and vulnerable the cast became while shooting the show. I remember the Beauty and the Geek trailer got a standing ovation at Upfronts because it wasn’t what the audience thought the show would be about. It was warm and sweet and really funny. It had a John Hughes vibe to it.
Ironically, MTV bought both Surreal Life and Beauty and the Geek.
NB: How did you come across Hot in Cleveland at TV Land?
KC: I would say in my 15 years here, there have been a lot of great moments, but Hot in Cleveland sticks out to me. Look, I got to work with Betty White every day for seven years.
The pitch was so quick. I met with Sean Hayes and his executive producer. They were pitching me reality shows and nothing really connected, but I asked what else they had. If you take a pitch but the concept is not a perfect fit, always ask, what else might you have? Sometimes the show they aren’t pitching is the one you end up buying. They said ‘I don't know if you're doing scripted TV, but…’ and they pitched a logline for Hot in Cleveland. The pitch was simple: Three LA women are going to Paris when their flight gets diverted to Cleveland. They were not happy to stay in Cleveland, instead of Paris, until all of the men in town told them they looked like supermodels.
It was TV Land's first scripted show, and they were a little nervous before the launch. Multi-cams were a little out of fashion at the time. Well, It exploded out of the gate to huge ratings. Broadcast network presidents were saying, ‘How did that happen?’ ‘How did this happen on TV Land?’ People were quite shocked.
NB: How did you get Betty White to be in the series?
KC: She was so amazing. When closing her deal she asked: ‘Okay, I'll do it. I just ask one thing. Can you drive me to the table read?’ Because she didn't drive. Of course, we said yes.
Casting any show is tricky but comedies are especially hard. You have to be a great actor and then also be really funny. Also, chemistry is key. Hot in Cleveland worked from day one because they all had existing relationships. Betty was only a guest star in the pilot and on tape night, after seeing the explosive reaction from the live audience, I turned to the casting director and said, ‘We need her as a series regular before this series airs.’
Viacom was a really great company…It just had a really good energy about it. I've been here 15 years and I still believe that.”
NB: What was your first role at Paramount and why did you decide to join?
KC: I got an offer to work at TV Land. The company was really appealing because, first of all, I loved all the Viacom brands. It was also about the opportunity to come to a smaller channel that hadn't really done originals and I had the opportunity to develop brand-defining shows. I knew Viacom was a really great company with great leaders. It had a great energy about it. So many culturally defining brands. I've been here 15 years and I still believe that.
NB: Younger was another scripted hit for TV Land. How did you make that happen?
KC: We decided to move away from close-ended sitcom storytelling to more serialized storytelling to ensure series were built week to week and season to season. I thought who does the best half-hour serialized shows? We wanted our version of Sex and the City. I met with Darren Star and he told me about the book, Younger, where a woman has to lie about her age to get a job after being out of the job market for a while.
It was a clean, simple pitch. The book had been around town and set up at numerous networks. Darren bought into our passion and decided to bring it to TVLand. We were glad he did as we ended up producing seven fantastic seasons.
NB: How do you get talent to agree to make something with us if it might not be their first choice?
KC: I think passion. It is about buying a show to get it on the air. Creators hate being stuck in development with endless other shows. We focus and buy what we want on air. At TV Land, we weren’t on the list for agencies to bring us shows. We didn't care. We chased the people and ideas we wanted. I think it’s actually more productive to be proactive. Creators and talent realize that if you respect their craft and you believe in their show, you will do anything to make their show win.
Q: If you weren't in this role, what would you be doing?
KC: I think I’d like to be an architect. Oddly very similar qualities. Take an idea, sketch it out. Make endless decisions as you build and you get to enjoy the finished product. Both very creative careers.
Q: What "Yellowstone" character is your spirit animal?
KC: Dave Annable in Season 1. I loved his relationship with his father, played by Costner. There was a scene in the pilot with Dave and Kevin that really moved me.
Q: What’s the best advice you've received?
KC: If a story or pitch doesn’t connect with you, think about why and take a look at it again.
Q: What are you currently obsessed with?
KC: Travel. Now that Covid is waning, I just want to travel, travel, travel.
Q: What are three qualities you look for in a hire?
KC: Taste, humor, and work ethic.