Screwing the TV Viewers
EVERYONE LOVES LES.Fortune just sucked up to him. The New York TimesMagazine recently smooched his ass. And Bill Carter’s new book, Desperate Networks, should be sharing royalties with the CBS president/CEO because it’s told entirely from his sexed-up point of view. Indeed, few media groups are more doting and docile when it comes to The Powers That Be than television critics and reporters (except for, perhaps, the White House press corps).
The reason their reportorial foreplay with Moonves has reached orgasmic proportions right now is that the other network men in their lives are so obviously impotent. NBC hustler Jeff Zucker keeps blaming his own prime-time fuck-ups on his entertainment eunuch Kevin Reilly. Disney pimp Bob Iger can’t escape his biggest mistake: losing his hard-on for Susan Lyne, the ABC Entertainment programmer responsible for Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy, and replacing her with Stephen McPherson, who hated Lost. The Fox guys deserve only sloppy seconds in terms of coverage — which leaves the TV press lusting after Les instead of mooning Moonves under headlines that tell the naked, and awful, truth about him. Here’s mine: “Moonves Kidnaps Netlet and Harms Underserved Network Audiences.”
Sure, all those press releases back in January claimed CBS and Warner Bros. were supposed to be equal partners parenting the new bastard child of The WB and UPN networks. That’s how The CW got its lame name — “C” for CBS, which owns UPN, “W” for Warner Bros. What no one dared mention was how right from the beginning Moonves out-maneuvered Barry Meyer, the chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, and Bruce Rosenblum, the president of the Warner Bros. Television Group.
The Warners duo had been warned over and over to build in every safety clause they could think of to prevent the 50-50 partnership from becoming the “Les Network” instead of the “Can’t Win Network,” as wags now refer to it. Instead, they rolled over. “The deal should have been pretty straightforward. After all, no money changed hands. But Moonves was more aggressive. On tiebreaker issues, Barry and Bruce were folding every negotiation to Les,” a Warners insider tells me.
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The result, the source explains further, is that “we were willing to trade a more valuable asset much more easily than we generally do at Time Warner given that we were bringing better stations, more successful programs and way higher revenue to ?the table.”
That’s not inexplicable considering that Time Warner’s No. 2, Jeff Bewkes, made his career at nonadvertising-supported HBO and, because of that, isn’t a big fan of broadcast television because he doesn’t believe in its economics. Warner Bros. simply did his bidding. Besides, The WB was always seen inside the parent company as the ugly stepsister, dating back to its inception when Ted Turner became TW’s majority shareholder and sought to shutter The WB, proclaiming he’d use the money to buy what he termed a “real” network. (Then-WB boss Jamie Kellner was so angered he went nine months without speaking to Terrible Ted.) “At the end of the day, we talked about the idea of an exit strategy for the network given that the management of Time Warner didn’t want to be in that business. This was the exit strategy,” a Warners insider tells me.
Now Moonves has used his negotiated advantage to de facto seize sole custody of The CW. I’m told “everything, every business decision, every programming decision” has to go by Les. Moonves and Nancy Tellem, the president of the CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group, are together programming the 13 prime-time hours — yes, that’s all CW is giving you for its September launch. “Even Bruce acknowledges at this point that Les and Nancy run the show. This is basically a CBS takeover,” sources tell me. “Everything on UPN will have first shot at coming back.”
According to my info, only The WB’s Gilmore Girls, Smallville and Supernatural are locks. UPN adds America’s Next Top Model, Everybody Hates Chris, Girlfriends, Friday Night Smackdown! and also probably Veronica Mars. Yes, the teen sleuth show has dreadful ratings, but it was Dawn Ostroff’s baby back at UPN and, as The CW’s new entertainment prez, she’s still emotionally tied to the so-so albeit critically praised. There is one piece of good news: The execrable Charmed will vaporize. (Damn them for replacing Shannen Doherty.) All the other highly watchable WB shows such as One Tree Hill, Everwood, the new Bedford Diaries and Pepper Dennis are in limbo. This really blows for the netlet’s loyalists (I confess I have the TV tastes of a 12-year-old girl. I still mourn Beverly Hills, 90210.) In the beginning back in 1995, the WB was planned as a dumping ground for Warner TV pilots and series that didn’t get picked up by the major networks. But, soon, The WB and UPN were bucking the network trend of going for the most eyeballs possible and instead targeting the younger 18-to-34 demographic and African-Americans.
The WB even entered the all-but-abandoned arena of family prime-time programming. Long-running Seventh Heaven is still so popular — with 5.2 mil viewers per week, the most-watched show on either The WB or UPN this season — that it could wind up on The CW schedule next fall despite the heavy hype that this is its last season. With that under its belt, The WB then allowed the Family Friendly Programming Forum, a consortium of three-dozen major advertisers anxious to cool the sex and violence heating up airwaves, to develop Gilmore Girls (weirdly a show about a single mother who had a kid in her teens), which became another hit.
IT’S IMPORTANT TO NOTE that the vast majority of moviegoers can’t discern any difference in product after Universal Studios was sold to NBC, MGM/UA gobbled up by Sony, and Pixar bought out by Disney. But viewers of The CW won’t get to see UPN’s two separate nights of African-American-oriented programming (because that’s been halved) or The WB’s many family-friendly prime-time shows (because they’ve been axed). So two underserved network audiences who embraced the netlet duo will soon be served even less. That’s horrendous since it comes at a time when black, Latino, Asian and other minority faces are as rare on network TV as smart sitcoms. Also dispiriting is the way that The CW cherry-picked the two netlets’ affiliates in major and minor TV markets around the country. That leaves those orphaned WB and UPN stations to subsist on syndicated shows, which are programming’s nutritional equivalent of pork rinds.
When I pointed out how much worse the network landscape will be for viewers because of the above, one of the executives involved in the deal demonstrated that special sang-froid network suits reserve for any discussion about the airwaves being a vehicle for the public interest instead of just a wheelbarrow for corporate profits. “As a business move, it was the smartest [for] our company to make,” he told me. That’s because execs at CBS and Time Warner greedily expect The CW to be profitable in its ?first year.
In the end, the unexpected but not surprising merger of the two hobbled netlets begs the question “Why can cable television support 500 channels, yet network TV not even six?” As with most everything related to Hollywood, it’s a conundrum of money and ego complicated by the FCC’s unwillingness to police a Big Media consolidation that hampers competition and harms consumers. TV execs talked ad nauseum about the challenging ad market and declining upfront sales (literally, 10 percent of total sales just disappeared from the marketplace). Of course the “P” word used most often by network heads these days is poverty, as in pleading it because of programming. They claim original programming is now upward of $8 mil in average launch cost for 22 episodes. By contrast, TNT puts on 13 episodes of The Closer and calls it a series but doesn’t have to worry as much about advertising because so much of its revenue comes from cable operators. Yes, it’s a lousy business having to face more competition from cable and the Internet, but so are a lot of media lately. The reason why broadcasters continue to spend billions on what they know is a broken system is obvious when Will & Grace sold its first 175 shows in syndication for $700 million.
The moguls would have us believe they couldn’t afford to operate two competing netlets when the reality is they simply didn’t want to. Big difference. Both parent companies have been under tremendous pressure on Wall Street because of lagging stock prices: CBS because of its recent spinoff from Viacom, and Time Warner because of penny-pinching billionaire investor Carl Icahn.
I’ve already found out that, on the night that The WB signs off, there’ll be a nostalgic stunt: five hours of clips from the netlet’s most iconic programming. Execs even are resurrecting that singing–and-dancing ’toon mascot who croaked, Michigan J. Frog. No doubt, the TV press will write reams about this and nothing about the real story — greed over good. Here’s hoping that, one day, they grow big enough balls to stop sucking up to Moonves and start focusing on his screwing of The CW viewers.
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