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Sassa's Two-Edged Sword

Television: The new NBC Entertainment president sees his network inexperience as a benefit and a hindrance.

October 28, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

New NBC Entertainment President Scott Sassa acknowledges it will take a little time for him to put any imprint on the network's programming, as he makes his latest pit stop while racing toward his next promotion.

Although only 39 years old, Sassa is already well traveled, having spent nine years at Turner Broadcasting System, overseeing Turner Entertainment Group and its film production arm, Turner Pictures. After that he briefly ran Marvel Entertainment (the troubled company declared bankruptcy not long after his arrival) and shifted to its parent, Andrews Group, before becoming president of NBC's TV station group a little over a year ago.

Sassa won't occupy his current seat for long either, having taken his new job with the understanding he will replace his boss, NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer, when Ohlmeyer's contract expires in January 2000, if not sooner. Ohlmeyer once employed Sassa as vice president of new business development for his own company and plans eventually to segue back into independent production.

Yet Sassa has virtually no experience in the area where NBC would appear to need help the fastest: developing prime-time series. He did work at Fox a dozen years ago but focused primarily on the network's business plan, operations and administration as part of the small team that helped to launch the network.

"He's a very smart guy, but he's never been in the trenches creatively," said one veteran television executive.

A Torrance, Calif., native who attended USC, Sassa was quick to concede there are gaps in his expertise but stressed he will be working with Ohlmeyer and a seasoned programming team.

"The good news is I haven't had the institutional experience, and the bad news is I haven't had the institutional experience," he said. "On the one hand, I bring a fresh eye [to the process], and on the other I don't have the historical precedent."

Echoing Ohlmeyer, Sassa maintains that the networks must adapt to new realities facing broadcasters. In a 1995 interview, he likened the networks to beachfronts, noting, "They are eroding away, but there are no other beaches."

"I still do believe that," he said this week.

NBC's audience has certainly eroded further this season, declining to 13 million people during an average hour of prime time--a drop of 20% compared to a year ago (although the 1997 figure reflects NBC having carried the World Series). Despite currently ranking just behind CBS in terms of overall viewing, the network Sassa inherits is faring better than its competitors in many respects, and he predicted NBC will finish first for the year in both total audience and the adult demographics most sought by advertisers.

Asked about the prospects of broadening the network's audience profile, Sassa said NBC has no desire to change the rules of the game.

"The key selling demographic is adults 18 to 49. That's the business we're in [and] that's what advertisers pay for," he noted. That said, Sassa added that NBC will focus on developing strong concepts, not seek to dream up shows based solely on their appeal to a certain age group.

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The ideas Sassa has a role in developing won't become TV shows for nearly a year. NBC already has ordered most of its prototypes from which the network will choose new drama series for next season and is getting into the process of selecting comedies.

"The timing is such that this season is what it is," Sassa said. "This is a good time for me to get in and get my bearings on what needs to happen."

Sassa, a third-generation Japanese American, was also asked about introducing more ethnic diversity into NBC's lineup--especially in light of what Ohlmeyer has called the "Balkanization" of TV viewing, with people of varying ages, interests and ethnic groups scattering to watch disparate channels and programs, making broadcasting's goal of bringing together a mass audience that much more challenging.

Sassa cited the integrated casts on popular network dramas such as "ER" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" as examples of the path he'd like to follow.

"There's room between 'Friends' and 'The Jamie Foxx Show,' " he said, referring to sitcoms on NBC and the WB network that feature all-white and all-black ensembles, respectively. "I don't think diversity is something you engineer around one ethnicity."

As for his own taste, Sassa expressed admiration for the new NBC sitcom "Will & Grace." NBC also acted Monday--technically his first day on the job--to yank "Wind on Water," a Saturday serial starring Bo Derek that most critics blasted, which had aired only twice.

Even with his limited involvement with prime-time programming, Sassa pointed out that he has never exactly been a casual consumer when it comes to television.

"I've been watching TV as a part of my professional career for a long time," he said. "I tape everything at the beginning of the season and watch it. I think that automatically disqualifies me as a normal viewer."

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