Desperate Networks

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9780385514408: Desperate Networks

In the executive offices of the four major networks, sweeping changes are taking place and billions of dollars are at stake. Now Bill Carter, bestselling author of The Late Shift, goes behind the scenes to reveal the inner workings of the television industry, capturing the true portraits of the larger-than-life moguls and stars who make it such a cutthroat business.

In a time of sweeping media change, the four major networks struggle for the attention of American viewers increasingly distracted by cable, video games, and the Internet. Behind boardroom doors, tempers flare in the search for hit shows, which often get on the air purely by accident. The fierce competition creates a pressure-cooker environment where anything can happen . . .

· NBC’s fall from grace—Once the undisputed king of prime time, NBC plunged from first place to last place in the ratings in the course of a single season. What will be the price of that collapse—and who will pay it?

· CBS’s slow and steady race to the top—Unlike NBC, CBS, under the leadership of CEO, Leslie Moonves, engineered one of the most spectacular turnarounds in television history. But in this ruthless world, you’re only as good as last week’s ratings . . . .

· ABC’s surprising resurrection—Lost and Desperate Housewives—have brought ABC the kind of success it could only dream of in the past. So why don’t the executives responsible for those hits work there any more?

· The end of the news as we know it—In a stunningly short period of time, all three of the major network news anchors—Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings—signed off, leaving executives scrambling for a way to keep network news relevant in an era of 24/7 information.

· Crazy Like Fox—They’re outrageous, unconventional, and occasionally off-putting, but more and more people are watching Fox shows. Most of all they keep watching American Idol. How did Simon Cowell snooker himself into a huge payday? Stay tuned . . .

In Desperate Networks Bill Carter digs deep inside the industry, delivering utterly irresistible “dish” that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s the perfect book to read when there’s nothing on TV.

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About the Author:

Bill Carter reports on the television industry for the New York Times and has written about television for almost 30 years. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a native of Brooklyn, New York, he currently resides in New Jersey with his wife and children.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
"Beautiful Girls"

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Manhattan in mid-May 2005, few people in the great city had reason to be as buoyant, as self-satisfied, as downright gleeful as the reserved, handsome, impeccably dressed fifty-four-year-old man sitting in a prominent aisle seat in the orchestra section of Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center.

For Robert A. Iger, this was a day of real triumph, not merely because ABC, the network he had been associated with for virtually his entire career, all the way back to 1977, had emerged from a seemingly endless dark night of failure and financial loss to sudden, spectacular success, but also because he had survived one of the most precarious apprenticeships in media history. He had finally been designated as the successor to Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Company.

That appointment had come just two months earlier, and it was due in no small measure to the startling turnaround at ABC during the just-completed 2004—2005 television season. Iger, once the top programmer at ABC himself, had presided, in his capacity as the number-two Disney executive, over nearly ten years of flops. The network seemed to be allergic to hit television shows. A batch of the biggest hits in recent years–Survivor, CSI, American Idol, The Apprentice–had all turned up first at ABC, only to have the net­work recoil in rejection.
Much of the blame for those mind-blowing misreads had been laid at the feet of Iger and Eisner, in constant stories of how their crippling control over the network’s decision making had under­mined the efforts of the network’s creative executives to find the shows ABC needed so badly. Iger dismissed the stories as inaccu­rate, but certainly they had some effect on his increasingly chal­lenged aspirations to succeed Eisner. If he could not fix ABC in years of trying, why would anyone think he could master the more complex issues facing the Disney Company?

Nor had the 2004 season begun with any great expectations. Just one year earlier, in April, there had been yet another multi-executive pile-up at ABC, as Iger axed both of the managers running the entertainment division and installed a new boss less than a month before the upfront. Nobody ever did something like that in April, because the upfront, an annual sales presentation of the new selec­tions of network prime-time shows, was so important to every net-work’s bottom line.

At the upfront, so called because clients purchased commercial time in network shows before the season commenced, the big adver­tising clients in New York piled into some elegant midtown hall, watched as the network trotted out clips of the new series it had picked up, and then attended a loud, crowded, lavish after-party where many of the young ad buyers lined up at booths to get their photos taken with–and autographed by–the new “stars.” For ABC in recent years, that had meant more Ernie Hudson than Tim Allen. Even when ABC did seem to build a successful show with a real star, like the comedy 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daugh­ter, something awful seemed to happen, like the shocking sudden death of that show’s star, John Ritter. ABC had the feel–and maybe the smell–of the chronically snakebitten.

Iger’s appointment of Stephen McPherson that April, accompa­nied by the announcement that he would create a new, improved ABC schedule from the pieces left behind by people who had just been ashcanned, seemed like an engraved invitation to every rattler, cobra, and asp in Hollywood to come and dine again on the carcass of ABC.

This time the snakes went hungry. Now, a year later, no one in Lincoln Center, with the possible exception of McPherson himself, had benefited more from what ABC had wrought in the preceding twelve months than Bob Iger.

As the upfront presentation began, the trim, ruddy-faced McPher­son walked out on stage, exuding a stony confidence. Thanks to the turnaround, McPherson had amassed, as a top Hollywood agent, Rick Rosen of Endeavor, put it, “more political capital than anyone else in this business.”

McPherson had several people to thank for that success– including Iger, of course, for putting him in the job–but surely no one more than the man waiting behind a decorated screen at the center of the stage.
Behind that screen, the man who had turned television on its head waited, psyching himself up for the performance of his lifetime.

Marc Cherry could not help thinking of the significance of the moment, about how far he had come–all the way from forgotten, ignored, and broke to the toast of network television. Decked out in white tie and tails, Cherry was to be the centerpiece of this day of celebration for ABC.

ABC was so downtrodden a year earlier that its late-night star, Jimmy Kimmel, had brought down the house with a joke about how each of the networks could be identified as a familiar type from high school. ABC was “the fat kid who eats paste”–that same ABC now had what the advertisers craved: the hottest of the hot shows.

Out on stage, McPherson was working quickly through his early material to get to his major announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my friend Marc Cherry!”

The screen parted in the middle and Cherry walked out with a flair that both reveled in and defied his own self-described “Stubby Kaye” look: round-faced, balding, roly-poly. The white tie and tails got a few laughs. Well, why shouldn’t this be a grand moment for this guy, the writer who could not get an interview, never mind a job, and who now had created Desperate Housewives, the biggest new scripted television show in years?

Cherry played it up. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I had the nicest year,” he said, soaking in the laughter. He called it an amazing time for his cast, his studio, and “especially my network.”

Then he turned to an unseen orchestra leader. “Hit it!” he com­manded, turning his shoulder to the back of the stage as music came up and a montage of shots from the first season of Desperate Housewives played on video screens above him.

A couple of other guys in tuxes appeared, handing Cherry a top hat and cane. With complete aplomb, he began to belt out “Beauti­ful Girls,” the Sondheim song from Follies, in a tenor voice so pure and powerful that many in the audience looked immediately for signs of lip-synching–but saw only a trained musical-theater singer fully in his element.

Cherry sang:
“Hats off, here they come, those beautiful girls . . . That’s what you’ve been waiting for.”
Cherry’s face loomed huge on the video screens as the camera caught him in close-up.
“See them in their glory–
Diamonds and pearls, dazzling jewels by the score. . . .”

Iger, beaming in his tightly controlled way, had to remember how Cherry had called to congratulate him the day the Disney appoint­ment was announced. Bob, surely recognizing what Desperate Housewives had meant to the moribund network that had been undermining his career ambitions, told Cherry, “Well, thank you for your part in it.”

As Cherry sang, a full chorus line of guys with top hats and canes filed out and joined him.
“This is what beauty can be.
Beauty celestial, the best you’ll agree . . .
All for you, these beautiful girls!”


And with another flourish Cherry swept his arm back and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, straight from Wisteria Lane, the Desperate Housewives!”

Now the chorus escorted out a lineup of truly beautiful girls– women really, a group of six actresses, mostly in their forties, who had captured the country’s imagination from their first week on the air eight months earlier. Out they walked in floor-length gowns and faux jewels, a couple waving snow-white boas: Marcia Cross, the show’s uptight Bree, in a coppery-gold gown with a cleavage-baring cutout; Eva Longoria, the Hispanic sexpot, Gabrielle, in a bejeweled strapless silver number, her long diamond string earrings stretching so far one literally rested in her cleavage.

The fourth in the parade was without boa or jewels, but the flash­ing smile and elegantly curled brown tresses signaled the central star­dom of Teri Hatcher, the emotionally vulnerable Susan of the series, in a striking beaded white V-neck gown. The reception from the audi­ence reinforced the point: Hatcher, the lead in an earlier, now almost forgotten ABC series, Lois & Clark, was a megawatt star again after descending so far into has-been land that she found herself, only a few months before her Housewives audition, far more desperate in her real life than anything Marc Cherry’s scripts had dished up for her.
“This is what drives men insane,
Here from our cheery, Wisteria Lane . . .”

One day earlier, Monday, at a venue famed for the art of high-kicking, Radio City Music Hall, Jeff Zucker, NBC’s increasingly embattled entertainment leader, had been forced to put on a dance of his own. NBC, the network that had dominated ratings and prof­its over much of the previous two decades, had accomplished a fall of Icarus-like proportions, crashing all the way from first place to fourth (and dead last) in the span of one September-to-May televi­sion season. And the only credible message Zucker could deliver that day was along the lines of: Yeah, we blew it.

That afternoon, NBC hoped to package its programs skillfully enough to convince advertisers that the network’s aging series and new unknowns were still worth near the same level of investment as the year before. The preceding May, ...

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