Gabfest of the TV Brass

At the industry powwow in Pasadena, network execs looked for the next Survivor and planned for a strike

By Ron Grover

For politicians, January is the month of pomp and circumstance. There's the Presidential Inauguration every four years, and it's also when the President and governors give their State-of-the-Union and state-of-the-state speeches. It's the same with the nation's television network executives.

Only instead of standing before the faithful in Congress or a statehouse, network brass hit the plush Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena, Calif., where the Television Critics Assn. gathers to hear the moguls expound on the state of television. Which TV shows made it last fall? Which ones are likely to show up next fall?

Mind you, this isn't exactly hardship duty for reporters. For critics from papers in the deep-freeze portions of the country, it's a time to kick back at a fancy hotel, relax in the Ritz Carlton's plush spa, gather gossip and information, and party. Want to meet Kelsey Grammer and the Frasier crew? Go to NBC's shindig at an Los Angeles hotspot. And you could've seen comedian Ray Romano of Everybody Loves Raymond at CBS's pre-Super Bowl party in Pasadena's historic Old Town section.

No parties for me. After the day sessions, I instead went home to my wife and daughters. But from those sessions, I was able to glean some basic themes about network life. As a service to those who care deeply about the goings-on of network TV but didn't make the trip, here they are:

Ratings have never been better. To hear the assembled moguls tell it, folks are flocking to their TV sets this winter as if the boxes were blazing fireplaces on a cold night. Leslie Moonves, president of CBS TV, who was battling a cold that weakened his usually peppy presentation, wasted little time in trumpeting the success of the seven new shows CBS aired this season. Crime shows CSI and The District were both the highest-rated new dramas on TV, while Yes Dear was the second-highest rated new comedy, behind only Cursed, the NBC show that inherits Friends' mammoth audience on Thursday nights.

Fox is the only major network showing growth among the 18-to-49-year-old viewers advertisers love, and it's feeding them hot shows like Malcolm in the Middle, Titus, and Dark Angel, says new top programmer Gail Berman. Indeed, says Berman, Fox is nipping at the heels of leader ABC for this coveted demographic. And NBC came out of the November sweeps period as the No. 1 network. Look at how well second-season shows such as West Wing and Third Watch are doing, says NBC chief Scott Sassa.

Now I don't want to rain on anyone's parade. But if all of these networks are doing so great, how come network TV viewership continues to fall? To be fair, it hasn't fallen by very much recently: According to Nielsen's most recent report, the number of folks tuning into the seven largest networks (including both Pax and UPN) is down only a fraction of a percent from a year ago. But network viewership has been falling for years, so even a slower fall isn't great. And if you take only the four largest networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox -- numbers are down even more. Throw out ABC's Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and they look downright scary. If you're ABC, you have to be hoping that Regis keeps showing up for work.

There's a strike in their future. No kidding. All of Hollywood has been gearing up for the inevitable. Writers and actors, taking their queue from the six-month strike actors visited upon commercial makers this year, will most likely watch TV rather than appear on it come summertime. That's not good news for network TV, which needs a few hot shows to keep the viewership trend from getting even worse.

None of the assembled network moguls would comment extensively. But each seems to have a game plan in the works, even if they weren't telling us everything. NBC, says Sassa, has ordered plenty of new episodes of hit shows Law and Order and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. And the network say it has a couple of reality shows in the works that they aren't going to tell us about just yet. CBS has Survivor 3 all ready to roll, says Moonves. As for Fox, well, they weren't quite as forthcoming. They, too, are working on some reality shows, says Berman, and a couple of shows that weren't ready for midseason. Glen Gordon Caron, the hotshot creator of Moonlighting, is preparing one.

I've got friends on both sides of this labor dispute. It would be best to settle soon, because a strike isn't going to help anyone, and especially not the network folks. For years, they saw the largest chunk of their audience desert them every summer. That's because viewers got tired of reruns and started clicking their remotes, stopping when they got to a cable channel showing something they hadn't seen before. If Hollywood thinks it can air some half-baked shows that didn't make their lineup earlier, they'll be in for a rude awakening. In a spasm of honesty atypical of media execs, News Corp. President Peter Chernin recently fretted that the strike would give cable channels their biggest chance yet to gain ground.

There's another Survivor out there, isn't there? The nets sure have their fingers crossed. CBS's Survivor was the Perfect Storm of television productions: a great idea, intriguing cast, and not much in the way of competition up against it. The Survivor finale in August ranked among the most-watched shows in recent years -- 50 million viewers. Now everybody wants their own "reality show," which network executives call "nonscripted" programming. ABC just launched its Mole program, and Fox has Temptation Island. I didn't watch either, and I'm afraid I wasn't the only one. Despite heavy promotion by ABC, 14 million folks watched the first episode of Mole. That's not small, for sure, but nowhere near Survivor numbers. In fact, the first week of Survivor drew more than 15 million folks to their sets -- and that was in the middle of viewer-challenged summer and before the show became a pop culture phenomenon.

Let me be the first to go on record saying none of these shows are going to come anywhere near Survivor. All one has to do is remember all those game shows that popped up in Millionaire's wake. Any of them still on the air? Not a one. Heck, even Survivor 2, which CBS will start airing on Jan. 28, is going to be a disappointment. Not that it won't do monster numbers in its first episode, following the CBS broadcast of the Super Bowl. But it will largely be downhill from there, because the show will be up against real competition, not summer programming. And no matter how well it does, it will never match the unbelievable numbers Survivor got. Perfect Storms don't come along all that often.

Fear and loathing in Hollywood. For years, studios and networks have had a love-hate relationship. Networks needed studios to make the TV shows for them, but then network execs fumed when the studios took the reruns and made truly staggering amounts of money syndicating them. Sure, NBC made a pile of dough on Seinfeld, but nowhere near what Sony and Castle Rock are making on those reruns. Now, as studios and networks merge, there's more incentive than ever for networks to air shows made only by their studio partners. That's why WB President Jamie Kellner griped publicly in Pasadena that Fox was likely to take back Buffy the Vampire Slayer, possibly to direct it to its own network. And over at NBC, there's fear that Paramount might do the same with Frasier, taking it to CBS.

A lot of this carping is little more than negotiating tactics. Some years back, there was talk that Warner Bros. wanted to take back its hit show ER, maybe to air it on the WB network. Some months later, Warner signed a hefty deal to renew the show, getting $13 million per episode to keep the show on the Peacock Network. Was WB happy? Let's just note that the stars of ER also all got shiny new Mercedes when the deal was signed.

"They don't have wheelbarrows over at WB, they have Mercedes," quipped Fox TV Chairman Sandy Grushow, who said he was "a little disappointed that WB is negotiating in the press," and that "if the WB makes a fair proposal, there is no reason why Buffy can't continue on the WB." A little later at the Pasadena powwow, CBS honcho Moonves got his licks in, too. When the talk got around to whether CBS might want to take Frasier away from NBC, Moonves played it straight. Sure, he loves the show, but you know, the history of TV shows jumping networks isn't great. "Unless of course, it's JAG," deadpanned Moonves. When JAG jumped from NBC to CBS, it went from near cancellation to a hot property. Even with a heavy cold and sore throat, Moonves couldn't resist the plug. After all, it's the time of year for network executives to strut their stuff.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for Business Week. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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