Lucha Underground is so good at everything that makes wrestling great -- the in-ring athleticism, over-the-top storylines and emotion-evoking characters -- that sometimes it's easy to forget the group of established names in the television and movie industry who have never worked in wrestling that keep the machine running behind the scenes.
Famed writer-director Robert Rodriguez is the leader of that group as the owner of the El Rey Network. Producers Mark Burnett, Eric Van Wagenen and Anthony Jensen add even more credibility with their successful track records in the television industry. And as of a year ago, Daniel Tibbets can now be added to that list.
Tibbets left his position as the chief content officer at Machinima to take over as president of the El Rey Network in May of 2016. As president, Tibbets has been heavily involved in the ongoings of Lucha Underground, which is the highest-rated show on the El Rey Network. Tibbets, who has never worked on a professional wrestling show before, has brought a more traditional TV show approach to Lucha Underground.
Tibbets recently spoke to ESPN.com about Lucha Underground and many of the recent topics surrounding the show.
ESPN.com: What interested you about the El Rey Network when you took over as president last year?
DT: "It's a story I actually tell often to people because I was the chief content officer at Machinima. One day I got a call, it was really kind of a cold call honestly, which asked the question would I be interested in meeting about the El Rey position and I was taken back. It was honestly just simple because I had gotten several calls in that time period and I said no to everything. I wasn't interested in doing anything else, but what was fascinating about El Rey is the brand. It's a cable-slash-entertainment brand that means something to its audience, to its fan base. To be proud of your legacy and heritage. That's what El Rey means. People to this day walk up to me and they say, 'I am El Rey' because it has meaning to them. When I heard that as an entertainment company in today's space where you're competing for so many different eyeballs, the most important thing you could be is a brand to your consumer base. Machinima was that in the gaming community and El Rey is that from an escapist entertainment, Robert Rodriguez style of storytelling. Certainly Lucha Underground is a perfect example of that type of program."
As the president of the El Rey Network, how involved are you with Lucha Underground?
DT: "I would say very involved. Of course the series was greenlit and developed before I joined El Rey. When you look at what El Rey is as a network -- Robert Rodriguez, it's octane, it's escapist entertainment, it's cinematic -- you look at all the developments that Robert built when he built this network and you look at Lucha Underground and you can see the influences of Robert certainly from that cinematic storytelling that he is famous for mixed with Mark Burnett and his producing techniques and capabilities. I think it came together beautifully in a show that is really unique and really could only be on El Rey and what El Rey is. From that perspective we continue to have a great partnership."
Lucha Underground is different from other wrestling shows and promotions out there with blood, violence and a lot of other aspects that wouldn't be allowed at other places such as WWE. Are there any guidelines given by the network in terms of what Lucha Underground can and cannot do on the show?
DT: "A couple things with that. It is a really unique show. One of the great moments is the first time I got to go watch Lucha Underground live. I knew of it and I had seen it, but I didn't really experience it. Being able to experience it is a whole different level because you're watching a TV series. If you think about it, it's kind of an action-packed series that has wrestling in it. And you're talking about supernatural elements. You're talking about heroes and villains. You're talking about a lot of unconventional elements that you don't normally see in quote 'wrestling shows.' I think that's what makes it unique. I think what Robert and Mark did so brilliantly is that they created a universe. That universe is deep-rooted in tradition and legacy. It's rooted in the long-standing lucha libre tradition. You know in the show that it pulls from very historical elements from a lot of different Aztec and Mayans, and you see those elements in it. I think I would answer it this way, the show stays true to that tradition. To that legacy. And we celebrate it. It's very important to us to maintain that standard of lucha libre, which you don't want to veer from. And I think what the show has done, and it's evolved and has grown, is it continues to grow on all those unique elements that I think Lucha has been noticeably first doing in that space."
I know talking to Chris DeJoseph, the lead writer of Lucha Underground, he said he has all the writing freedom in the world. It doesn't seem like there's anything coming from the network perspective to slow him down.
DT: "No, you know one of the things I love about Robert and his thinking is he loves to do things that no one else does (laughs). He takes risks. He goes to the extreme. I used the word octane earlier and escapist-entertainment, action-packed, that's all things I really equate to Robert and I think that then funnels to everybody in the company where you're encouraged to take risks. You're encouraged to try something. And you know what, if it doesn't work try something else. I think Chris DeJoseph and the team, they definitely have a lot of openness to really try things out. And you know you listen to the audience. You know when something pops. You know when somebody's excited about the character. You hear the chants. You get fan reaction. I think that's the beauty of the show."
One of the topics that's been discussed recently with Lucha Underground is the constant breaks in filming. Season 3 just came back from a 4.5-month midseason break. What's the reason for these breaks and how can the El Rey Network avoid them in the future?
DT: "Again I look at Lucha like a TV show that features wrestling, so breaks, hiatuses, they're really a part of the natural structure of TV. I can't imagine many TV shows that you think about in prime time that don't take breaks, don't take hiatuses, don't have story arcs with breaks, endings and then they come back and keep the fans wanting more. I think that's an important part of programming for television. When I came on board a year ago, I looked at the landscape and I looked at the episodes that we had in the can and the convention about how to air them. We started off with season 3, and then we took the hiatus of season 3, then came back on May 31 with our 'All Night Long' episode, which is great. That's a normal programming cadence that I see from the number of episodes that we have, which is a lot.
"The other reason for this recent hiatus is really, I got to go back to Netflix. I think it's important when I look at the viewing habits of Netflix, it's a great opportunity to gain new viewers. It's a great opportunity to have fans, that maybe aren't familiar with it on El Rey, discover it on Netflix, watch Seasons 1 and 2, certainly get excited about the show, and then come to El Rey to watch new episodes. This is an El Rey show. To watch new episodes after you've watched seasons 1 and 2, you gotta come to El Rey. It was definitely something when I came on board, [I] thought this is the best way, based on El Rey's programming and based on the fact that seasons 1 and 2 were gonna be on Netflix, to really maximize the exposure for the show."
Do you have any updates on the progress of a potential season 4?
DT: "It's a great question and I've been asked that of course, but my answer, which is an honest one, is that we're in the middle of season 3. That's where our focus is. We're doing everything from a programming, a marketing, promotion, to deliver on a very successful, very engaging season 3. So it's really just a function of timing. It's just not time to talk about season 4 because we're actually in the middle of a season. Again, just from a network programming standpoint, you normally don't do that. That's where we are right now is we've got 19 more episodes of season 3 to get through. To make successful. And then you bet we're gonna want to talk about a season 4. We're committed to the series. It's a wonderful brand and it fits El Rey. But let it get through season 3, let us make that the best and then we can have a conversation about season 4."
What is the future of Lucha Underground? Will the show be sticking to the one-hour, seasonal format or have you considered branching out to possibly do Lucha Underground movies or pay-per-views?
DT: "The answer is all of the above. Yes, of course; we think about it, we talk about. We are certainly looking at a variety of logical extensions for the show, the characters, the brand. All of that makes sense. When you have something that fans are passionate about ... we have a site, El Rey Nation, where fans can write us. I read all of it. Every comment that is put on El Rey Nation, I look at, and we respond and we have great dialogue with our fans. We get a lot of comments, suggestions, like we'd like [Lucha Underground] to be longer. Absolutely. That'd be super cool. However, we do talk to a lot of fans and we do a lot of research and we have that conversation, but people really love that one-hour format. The short answer is yes, we're always looking to explore more ways to work with the show, the brand and our partners, and at the same time we're also listening to the fans and looking to see what they recommend. What they would like to see. When is the right time to do that? All of it's on the table for us to continue to explore."
Who is your favorite Lucha Underground character?
DT: "Oh gosh [laughs]. I'm not gonna answer it. I do have several favorites actually. It's funny, I would answer it this way. Coming into El Rey, Lucha Underground isn't necessarily something I would've thought appealed to me specifically. I have become, I am a true fan of that show. Period. I love watching it. I love going to the tapings. I love being with the characters. It is an absolute thrill. As a television executive, as a media executive, you don't always love everything you get to work on or be a part of. When there's something that you really enjoy, as a fan and you also get to be a part of it, that's a really unique situation. I can honestly say that I'm an absolute true, true fan of Lucha. So, tough one for me to answer because I do have several favorite characters, but as the president of El Rey I'm gonna say no comment."
Were you a pro wrestling fan before working with Lucha Underground?
DT: "No, I would say I was not. Am I a pro wrestling fan? I'm a fan of Lucha Underground. That is the absolute truth. I think it is a unique show. I think it's a special show. I think it's different than any other wrestling show, and I'm not saying that just as the President of El Rey. As a fan of Lucha Underground, I am a fan of it. I think that is a unique situation to come into a company like El Rey, and then to really fall in love with the program. It was here before I got here. I didn't put it on the air, but I became a fan of it. And not just because I work here. I will be a fan of it long after."