As the credits roll in the season premiere of Apple’s “Carpool Karaoke: The Series,” Eric Pankowski’s name is one of the first to appear.
Pankowski, BA’99, a television producer whose credits include “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and WWE, said he always knew he’d get to see his name in the credits.
“The politically correct thing to do is to say I never imagined doing it,” he said. “But the truth is, yeah, I did.”
Pankowski’s interest in television began at a young age. He remembers watching countless TV programs with his family. He loved the idea of creating something new every day. He thought he would be the next David Letterman. In some ways, he said, it feels inevitable that he went into television.
That he got his start as a “numbers guy” was the unexpected part.
Pankowski went to IU because it was more or less family tradition. His older sister went to IU. His uncle went to IU. His parents went to IU, where they met. His younger brother went to IU after him. And his three kids – ages 11, 8 and 6 – will also go to IU, he says.
He researched other colleges in high school, but said he was always destined to end up at IU.
“It was just burned in my head that when you think of college, you think of Indiana University and you think of Bloomington,” he said.
At IU he studied telecommunications, and at the recommendation of a professor applied for a summer internship program that placed students at media jobs in New York. Pankowski was placed at the Sundance channel.
“It was my first real headfirst dive into the entertainment industry, and I loved it,” he said.
He went back to IU for his senior year, and was ultimately offered a job by Sundance. But another job offer — from the Warner Bros. research division — caught his eye.
It wasn’t a job he ever thought he would do. But he took it because he knew there were important lessons to be learned there. It was through working in research that Pankowski learned the essentials of the business: ratings, shares and costs per millions.
He had to have ratings ready at 6 a.m. So he got to the office at 5 or 5:15 a.m., downloaded and printed dozens of pages of ratings from the night before and faxed them to New York. He also studied them religiously, learning not just the numbers and what they meant but the contexts, too. He knew what shows performed well, and why, and how.
After three years in research, Pankowski was offered a job by Warner Bros. as a television executive. He oversaw game shows, relationship shows and court shows. He worked on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” early in its run.
“It was an invaluable experience, and the executive producers who worked on that show were amazing and really experienced,” he said. “I was able to learn from them.”
After 12 years at Warner Bros., shorter stints for other companies and years more working in production, Pankowski has learned quite a few lessons about the business.
One is that television shows are inevitabilities. When he pitches shows, he’s not begging companies to spin his ideas into realities – he knows better than that. If he has an idea, it will air — somewhere, someplace, sometime. A pitch meeting is just an offer to a network to be the one to bring it to fruition.
It’s also important to understand contexts, something he gleaned from his media research days. When he took the idea for a “Carpool Karaoke” series to Apple, Pankowski knew that it would be a perfect fit for a company where music matters.
Pitching wasn’t the only hurdle to be cleared to get the series off the ground, Pankowski said. He was also careful to create something distinct from “Lip Sync Battle,” another comedy segment-gone-series. And he had to ensure that his series would stand alone from “The Late Show” segment that inspired it.
“Carpool was so attached to James as a personality,” he said. “The idea of having a different host was really scary.”
The series premiered on Apple Music in 2017 and began its second season in late 2018. It won a Primetime Emmy for “Outstanding Short Form Variety Series,” an accolade Pankowski said was not only an honor, but also welcome validation for the show’s entire cast and crew.
“Wow, this beats working for a living for sure,” he said of his job.