Thursday, December 30, 2010

On The Second Day Of Christmas

On the second day of Christmas, my true love – Television – gave to me... two departing executives.

In this case I'm speaking of The CW's Dawn Ostroff who recently resigned as the networks President of Entertainment, and Jeff Zucker who was fired as President of NBC Universal in September.

dawn-ostroffI really don't know that much about Dawn Ostroff. Most of the programs that the network airs aren't directed to a person of my age and gender. This is quite deliberate, a policy that Ostroff who has headed the Programming Department at The CW since the network was created has championed. The CW's focus on the "young female" (teens and early 20s) focus means that the network has the youngest audience on TV. This allows the network to claim victory with small audiences by claiming that they're successful in reaching their target audience and going after advertisers who are trying to reach that market. Still there have been missteps and casualties both in the transition from the two networks which made up The CW, UPN and The WB, and in the subsequent period. The CW is the only network without any sitcoms. The WB had a fairly well regarded set of Friday night sitcoms which included their highest rated show of all at the time, Reba. The Friday night comedy block was dumped because one of the things that UPN brought into the merger was WWE's Friday Night Smackdown which was that network's biggest draw (some might say their only draw). Ostroff initially cancelled Reba when the two networks merged, on the grounds that it didn't fit with the demographic that the network was aiming for, however the show was given a 13 episode order just before Upfronts in May 2006, largely on the grounds that more episodes to allow the show to be syndicated. Brought on to replace one of the of the two new series to debut during the first season of the new network, it became one of the top rated shows on the new network. There were reports that the show would be given a full season order but the show was completed its thirteen episodes and was cancelled. The last sitcoms on The CW were Everybody Hates Chris and The Game in the 2008-09 season. Ostroff also had major problems on Sunday nights after Seventh Heaven left the night in the 2006-07 season. Ostroff was at the helm when The CW decided to farm out their entire Sunday night schedule to an independent producer named Media Rights Capital. The arrangement fell apart within a few weeks of the shows debuting with MRC cancelling their shows and The CW cancelling their deal with the content provider. The CW limped through that season with a combination of reruns of the cancelled CBS series Jericho and movies and hasn't programmed the night since. The network also has an ongoing problem in finding a program to follow their only continuing reality series, America's Next Top Model. Ostroff will be leaving the network to spend more time with her family.

zucker4 But of course the real target of this post is former NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker, also known as the man who was fired up. He started his NBC career as field producer at Today in 1989, became the show's Executive Producer in 1992, was named President of NBC Entertainment in 2000, President of the NBC in 2004 (giving him responsibility not only for NBC but also NBC-Universal's other TV properties including Sci-Fi, Trio, and USA Network), CEO of NBC in 2005, and President and CEO of NBC Universal in 2007. In fact his progress was only halted by two things: there was nowhere higher at NBC Universal to go, and then the company was sold to Comcast. Comcast was not as enamoured of Zucker's record as his former bosses at General Electric were. In September 2010 Zucker was fired and replaced with Comcast COO Steve Burke. 

Zucker was a case of a man who had been promoted far above his level of incompetence. His history as Entertainment President is illustrative of this. His programming strategy seems to have consisted of throwing large amounts of money at established hits – most notably Friends – without giving the opportunity for new shows to develop to their full potential. When Friends finally left the air it was Zucker who came up with the "brilliant" idea of taking the least interesting character on that show, Matt LeBlanc's character Joey Trebiani – and building a show around him. Despite dismal ratings Joey stayed on the air for two agonising years. Meanwhile older shows were being buffeted in the ratings by fresher competition and the new shows that Zucker and his successors Kevin Reilly and Ben Silverman were rolling out were underperforming. The Reilly period did produce some good shows, a few of which are still on the air. Among the Reilly shows were 30 Rock and Chuck, and Reilly was also a vocal supporter of keeping The Office despite low initial ratings. In fact Reilly's contract was extended in February 2007. And then he was forced out of the company in May 2007, largely as a result of Zucker's machinations. Silverman's period as Entertainment President was an unmitigated series of disasters, both in terms of programming and his own behaviour. Silverman brought in shows that were totally out of step with what viewers of the broadcast were watching. His one season in full control of the network included shows like Crusoe, and Kings, and he was also responsible for the reimagining of Knight Rider and the American version of Kath & Kim. Zucker was also responsible for the whole Leno-O'Brien debacle. In 2004 he negotiated the contract that would keep Jay Leno as host of the Tonight Show until 2009 only, at which point he would be replaced with Conan O'Brien. As the time for the change grew nearer, Leno's ratings on the Tonight Show were incredibly strong. In an effort to keep Leno on the network and keep him from competing with Conan on a different night, NBC offered Leno the third hour of primetime five nights a week. The result was a disaster for Leno, NBC's primetime lineup (several third hour shows were moved to the second hour, and Southland, a show which was totally unsuited to the second hour was cancelled only to be picked up by the TNT cable network), and the Tonight Show franchise. The network's response was to buy Conan out of his contract, restore Leno to the Tonight Show and scrambled to find shows to hold down the third hour. 

I have spent a lot of time discussing some of the statements of Jeff Zucker over the years until it got to be a bit boring. My particular favourites were those times when Zucker set himself up as a wannabe Nostradamus, but turned out to be more of a Jeanne Dixon, without Dixon's ability to occasionally get something right.
  • In October 2006, Zucker stated that NBC would no longer air scripted programming in the 8 p.m. time slot. According to a TVSquad article at the time: "Zucker says that advertisers just won't pay enough money during the 8 pm time slot to cover the costs of comedies and dramas. Instead, the network will air game shows and reality shows during that hour." That prediction, which was never fully enacted, saw the rise and overexposure of Deal Or No Deal, and lasted almost two seasons.
  • In January 2008, during the Writers Strike, Zucker announced that Network Upfronts were a dying institution and NBC wouldn't be doing one: "Things like that are all vestiges of an era that's gone by and won't return." In another statement he said, "When people say the upfront, there are two things: One is the dog-and-pony show at Radio City and the second is the way we sell the inventory," Zucker said. "The way that we sell the inventory in an upfront selling period is not going to change. Whether we still need to do the dog-and-pony show is completely under review here and you can look for an announcement on that from us very soon."
  • The decision to dispense with the Upfront process barely lasted as long as it took to say it, although what they did do was different from what the other networks announced, according to Media Daily News: "Breaking from the usual announcement of programming for the September-to-May season, NBC will instead lay out its prime-time schedule for the full 52 weeks ahead in April. Then it will hold smaller client meetings in New York, with the heads of NBC's entertainment operations, Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, meeting with advertisers to discuss marketing opportunities for that 52-week lineup. Next, NBCU's sales team will fan out to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago for further meetings about the schedule and advertiser opportunities. Then comes the May 12 "spotlight event." The location will be announced later. NBCU said the "spotlight" will focus on more than just NBC proper to include the range of other assets that advertisers can buy throughout NBCU."
  • At about the same time, Zucker was telling the world that Pilots weren't needed. In a speech at NATPE, Zucker stated: "Broadcasters can no longer spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on pilots that don't see the light of day or on upfront presentations or on deals that don't pay off. And we can't ignore international opportunities, VOD (video-on-demand) or the Web....It's not about making less programs; it's about making less waste....NBC will order fewer pilots and start ordering more projects straight to series – 'those that our executives really believe in' – similar to the model for reality shows." That may explain what happened during the one season that Ben Silverman programmed for the network. In the end, NBC went back to pilots.
  • Shortly before NBC finalized the deal to bring Jay Leno to primetime, Zucker mused about the possibility of turning either Saturday nights or the third hour of primetime over to the affiliates. According to him, "putting scripted programming on during the third hour of primetime is part of a broken programming model." Once the decision was made to put Leno into the third hour time slot he stated that "advertisers will respect the network based not on ratings but on corporate profitability." Leno flopped in the third hour and as a result NBC went back to the business of programming the third hour of primetime with scripted series.
Maybe one last statement is worth considering. While being interviewed by PBS's Charlie Rose in January 2010, Zucker responded to Rose's statement that, "NBC is in shambles" by denying it. According to Zucker, "NBC Entertainment is responsible for 5% of the bottom line and 95% of its perception," and that he (Zucker) kept his job because the company was successful despite the failures of the entertainment division. Zucker forgot – if he'd ever known, which is doubtful – the idea of the "clean window train." In the days when people travelled more extensively by train than they do today, the railroads spent a great deal of time and money on their most important passenger trains. In fact they spent money disproportionately with the percentage of revenue that the passenger service brought in compared with the freight service. The railroad presidents knew or believed that the passenger train was the part of the operation that the public saw; it was the window through which the public, including people who shipped goods by train, perceived the railroads and so it needed to be a "clean" window. Zucker might have been right that NBC's Entertainment division represented only 5% of the company's bottom line, but he forgot that it ws ninety-five percent of what shaped the public, and the advertisers', perception of the company. Zucker's previous employers – General Electric – might have been focused more on the bottom line than on perception, but the new owners of the network weren't blinded to the value of how the network is perceived. And that probably explains why he's now out of a job.

No comments: