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Hollywood: Damaged on Wall Street, Weak in Prime Time and Ignoring Tina Brown 

A world of hurt

Wednesday, Sep 17 2008
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Monday, Bloody Monday

I didn’t bother trying to call anyone important in Hollywood the morning of September 15, because show-biz bigwigs were huddling with their business managers and brokers and bankers to figure out their personal portfolios in the midst of Monday’s stock market bloodbath.

The Dow closed 504 points lower, its worst plunge since 9/11 — but shares of Big Media companies miraculously were down but by no means out. Hardest hit was NBC Universal’s parent company, GE, whose stock fell to a five-and-a-half-year low because it was lumped in with embattled financials, even though it’s a broadly diversified conglomerate. Tuesday was less butt-ugly but still another eerily quiet day in Hollywood, as everyone monitored Wall Street. The Dow fought through tremendous volatility, opening 175 points down and closing 142 points up. Again, GE see-sawed, but its shares wound up 1.87 percent ahead. Viacom was hit the hardest of the infotainment stocks, falling 3.46 percent.

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Much more than executives in other industries, studio and network types have despaired of ever seeing their underwater stock options (below the strike price) ever come up for air. Which means that this once-upon-a-time fabulous perk was rendered all but meaningless once Hollywood and Big Media stocks began a long decline in value. With the stock market’s months-long slide, and no good financial news on the horizon, I’ve been surprised, even shocked, that the Big Media CEOs have ignored the obvious and gone on record, telling Wall Street that their biz won’t be impacted much by any economic depression. (They weren’t ignoring Sarbanes-Oxley by lying, were they? Not that the Bush administration’s weak-kneed SEC would ever do anything about it.)

True, the networks have seen TV advertising go way down but way up for Internet streaming. And moviegoing jumped 35 percent this past weekend at the North American box office compared with the same weekend last year.

But with once high-flying investment firms and banks around the world now grounded, the debt market seems nonexistent, so studios can’t find new financing to mitigate their risk making movies. And if they do, the terms are poisonous. Fortunately, all the studios except for Paramount and MGM already have in place overall film-slate financing deals to get them through the next few years.

But the smart infotainment bosses would do well to study what happened to Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, American International Group, Washington Mutual, etc: CEO hubris destroyed those once-impervious financial fortresses. It can happen to the moguls, too, if they don’t get their Hollywood houses in order vis-à-vis the Screen Actors Guild.

Everyone knows these sons-a-bitches employers are waiting until September 18 to see if SAG elects a more compliant board to facilitate negotiating a new contract, now more than three months overdue. When the winning candidates are announced, the moguls had better order the AMPTP to make a deal right away before Wall Street gets wind of their willfulness and takes the employers apart brick by brick.

 

Trouble in TV City

First I reported turmoil inside NBC’s fall scripted shows like Kath & Kim and My Own Worst Enemy and predicted that its prime time is gonna stink up the joint this fall. Now there’s trouble inside CBS’s prime-time sked. The Ex List’s creator/showrunner, Diane Ruggiero, exited, and executive producer Rick Eid took over running the show. Uh, doesn’t anyone realize that the new 2008-2009 TV season starts in a few weeks?

Here’s why I know the networks are preparing for the worst: because bosses like CBS’s Les Moonves and NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker keep telling business reporters that their companies are “so much more” than just prime time.

CBS’s prospects look better than NBC’s but far from great, with the exception of The Mentalist. And a lot of the old shows are growing mold. I think the entertainment team there, Nina Tassler and Nancy Tellem, are past their expiration date.

At troubled stepsister the CW, other media inexplicably haven’t fussed over the dramatic falloff of 90210’s follow-up to its Tori Spelling–less opener — but I will. When 90210 can’t beat in its second original airing what the old WB’s Gilmore Girls got in its reruns, it’s time for Moonves to fire UPN-turned-CW boss Dawn Ostroff.

And let’s not forget Peter Liguori’s Fox: Numbers for the debut of the second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles were lousy. And the network’s sitcoms got off to a slow start against no competition. Fringe has generated some decent reviews, but this looks like yet another fall that’s dead air until American Idol starts up its eighth season. And two Fox midseason shows have shut down production for a few weeks because of script problems: Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse and Howard Gordon’s 24.

As for ABC, most new shows don’t even start until midseason. But there’s been showrunner musical chairs on ABC’s holdover Dirty Sexy Money. First, Josh Reims left last year. Then Dexter’s Daniel Cerone joined Dirty Sexy Money as showrunner right after the end of the writers strike in February.

But in June, Cerone’s three already-shot episodes for the 2008-2009 season were canned, and he was replaced by Jon Harmon Feldman, whose Big Shots didn’t last very long on ABC but who had worked before with Dirty Sexy Money’s exec producer, Greg Berlanti, on Dawson’s Creek. I would never have brought back the series: great cast, horrible story line. ABC’s TV bosses Anne Sweeney, Steve McPherson and Mark Pedowitz should have put this dog out of its misery.


Hollywood Ignores Tina Brown

It’s very hard in the public spotlight to have second acts, much less infinite acts like Tina Brown. (Remember when her Talk mag died from lack of interest, or her short-lived CNBC talk show received a zero rating?)

Now Brown may have blundered by falling back on that tired trick of a “Hollywood Power List” to help launch her new blog. “The idea is so 1980s. Both Premiere and EW have abandoned their lists, thank God, and Vanity Fair’s is totally different,” one Hollywood flack complained to me. “I think she wanted to stir up a frenzy. But a lot of us are saying, ‘Thanks but no thanks. We’re not going to participate. We don’t care if you list us or not.’”

I feel sorry for Brown’s likable L.A. rep Tom Tapp, who’s now starting to flop-sweat. First he sent around a blizzard of e-mails asking for meet-and-greets for what he described as “a Hollywood Power List, circa 2010,” where “the idea is that as the Industry changes rapidly, it’s more important to know who you should be in business with in two to three years than it is to know who’s on top right now. We’re speaking with all the agencies, the studios and players around town, as well as Silicon Valley. We’d love to come in sometime soon and talk to your best and brightest about the future of the Industry.”

But a lot of people and places have politely put him off or turned him down flat.

Now Tapp is sending out increasingly desperate-sounding e-mails to Industry flacks, begging for help. (Typical was this message: “Hey Man, We need to get moving on this. Any chance we can set something up in the two weeks?”)

The problem is Tina’s long history. Hollywood feels Brown is played-out because of the failure of her recent ventures, except book-writing. Most think the Web site is just another of her self-promotional stunts to raise her own profile.

And many still resent her cozy relationships with loathed former power players Mike Ovitz (whose agenda she slavishly followed at Vanity Fair), Harvey Weinstein (whose agenda she slavishly followed at Talk) and Barry Diller (whose agenda she’s following since he’s funding her new little venture).

Tina, I wish you all the best!

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