NBCUniversal’s Ron Meyer to students: There’s never been a better time for a career in the entertainment industry

By Wendy S. Loughlin

September 12, 2017

Ron Meyer opened his remarks at the Newhouse School yesterday with a promise to speak candidly.

The vice chairman of NBCUniversal delivered on that promise, answering questions on topics ranging from his early career to Hurricane Irma—and, of course, the entertainment industry—in front of an auditorium packed with students.

Meyer, who assumed the vice chairman role in 2013, previously spent 18 years as president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios.

But his career success was not always assured. A self-described “screw-up” as a kid, Meyer dropped out of high school and joined the Marine Corps at age 17. A bout of measles, which landed him in quarantine, marked a turning point in his life.

Photo of Ron Meyer

“My mother sent me two books,” he recalled. “One was called ‘The Amboy Dukes,’ which was about kids in trouble—which I had been—and the other was called ‘The Flesh Peddlers,’ which was about a guy who drove fast cars and went out with beautiful women and worked at an agency.” Meyer joked, “I thought, boy, if I’m going to do something with my life, I might as well go out with beautiful women!”

Following his discharge from the Marines, Meyer, who until then had assumed he’d go into sales like his father, went to look for agency work. He landed what he called “a miracle job” at the Paul Kohner agency, and spent five years there as Kohner’s messenger. “It was a seven-days-a-week job and I made $75 a week,” he said. “It was a great experience and I had a great time. That was my training program.”

Meyer’s next job was at the William Morris Agency, where he worked for five years, but he was fired when he and fellow agents were caught planning to start their own agency. Those plans came to fruition as Creative Artists Agency, founded in 1975, which today is regarded as one of the most preeminent talent agencies in the business.   

Meyer’s remarks at Newhouse were facilitated by Tula Goenka, professor of television, radio and film, who opened the event by observing the 16-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. She asked Meyer about the Universal Pictures film “United 93,” which tells the story of the hijacked plane that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on the morning of the attacks.  

“It’s one of the films that I am most proud of,” Meyer said. “I think it shows what people can do in the very worst circumstances. When we experience the worst in humanity, that film shows the best of humanity.”

For the rest of the hour-long event, Meyer responded to questions from Goenka and students about news, politics and entertainment.

On Hurricane Irma and Universal Studios in Orlando: It’s a tragedy, people are horrendously affected—and of course it’s always poor people who are affected the most. [Universal Studios] is fine, but a lot of people are not.

On the 24-hour news cycle: I don’t think news was meant to be on 24 hours a day. And so that’s the first issue, they have to fill up the airwaves. It has become our full-time entertainment in terms of news. But it isn’t news as we once knew it. It’s news as it gets sold to us by the media.

On whether NBC will release “The Apprentice” tapes: They’re not theirs to release. Mark Burnett owns those tapes.

On competition from content providers like Netflix, Amazon and cable: It’s very difficult. Network television has tremendous restrictions—language restrictions, violence restrictions, sexuality restrictions—that you don’t have in cable. They have the ability to do whatever they want and they’re doing it without commercial interruption, which is a big advantage.

On students planning careers in entertainment: There has never been a better time [to enter the field]. Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and Showtime and HBO—they’ve forced all of us to up our game. There are more opportunities to make it in television or film. There are all kinds of places to find work, whether on the creative end or the business end.

Meyer is a longtime supporter and friend of the Newhouse School, always willing to play host to students visiting the West Coast as part of the Syracuse University Los Angeles Semester or the annual Hollywood Benchmark Trip. Established by retired Syracuse University Vice President for Program Development Larry Martin, the trip gives Newhouse students a behind-the-scenes look at the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, providing them with the unique opportunity to meet with prominent writers, producers, agents and entertainment executives. Meyer will fund this year’s trip through a gift to Syracuse University in Martin’s honor. Newhouse Dean Lorraine Branham announced the gift at a luncheon yesterday.