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Goal in TV: Just Win, Baby, and Quickly

* Network execs get little time to find hit shows. Ask NBC's Garth Ancier, out after 18 months.

December 16, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The team is losing. Quick, fire the coach.

No, you didn't take a wrong turn and land in the Sports section. It's just that the prevalent philosophy in sports--a multibillion-dollar, entertainment-oriented business rife with overpaid superstars--increasingly mirrors the short-term thinking on display in television.

The latest demonstration of this came Thursday with the ouster of NBC Entertainment President Garth Ancier, underscoring that the average life span of top programming executives appears to be shrinking. Ancier lasted roughly 18 months at NBC, and Doug Herzog, Fox's former entertainment chief, was forced out in the spring after just 15 months--a quick hook even by that network's impatient standards.

Not that network executives have traditionally been fixtures in those jobs. Brandon Stoddard, the onetime president of ABC Entertainment, once quipped that network executives usually last only about four or five years because that's roughly the sentence given most white-collar criminals.

While this shorter hook may not, on its face, provide the casual TV viewer cause to think twice, audiences do suffer from management's itchy trigger finger, which assumes the best remedy for all ills is to clean house.

This is in part because in both sports and television, it's virtually impossible to achieve any sort of clearly articulated strategy or undertake necessary risks when the sword of Damocles always seems to be hanging by the most slender of threads over the key decision maker's head.

The tasks facing a top TV programmer and head coach do have a lot in common. Each must develop existing talent and find new star players. Just as athletes graduate (from college) or age to the point of infirmity (in the professional ranks), television executives must constantly be on the lookout for newcomers to supplant aging hits that, like athletes, enjoy brief runs at peak capacity before sliding over the hill.

In both instances, constant turnover serves only to exacerbate this challenge. For starters, it takes nearly a year for most television shows to mature from script to prototype to series, and since that gestation process is ongoing any executive can lay only partial claim to programs developed within a 12-month cycle.

Moreover, as with coaches recruiting athletes, the relationships that result in finding a "star" often take years to cultivate. George Clooney went through numerous series before landing on "ER" and making echocardiograms go pitter-pat all over America. The producers of "Friends" preceded that show with "Family Album," an eminently forgettable 1993 CBS sitcom starring Peter Scolari.

Allowing for rare exceptions, hit series seldom spring from the ground fully formed anymore. They require patience and nurturing, something a new regime is often less apt to provide the roster left behind by a dispatched predecessor.

Indeed, with each personnel change, existing projects acquire the stench of death if the wrong executive happened to champion them. And executives who know they must "win" immediately have little incentive to be daring or bold, retreating to what appear to be tried-and-true formulas.

In television, that frequently means quality fare of dubious commercial value is usually left on the sidelines. An insecure executive generally doesn't order "Twin Peaks" or give a production green light to a show about an ugly cartoon family with a bratty son and beer-swilling father; instead, they draft established stars and big-name producers, hedging their bets with projects that will likely sound impressive to their corporate masters, at least until the videocassettes get popped into a VCR.

As it was, Herzog managed to develop several offbeat shows, including the clear-cut hit "Malcolm in the Middle," and still got bounced at Fox. His predecessor, Peter Roth, lasted a mere two years despite launching "That '70s Show," now an important staple of the network's lineup.

Granted, every now and then a network or team simply signs up the wrong person, someone ill-suited to the requirements of that particular job. USC football coach Paul Hackett may have been such a hire, and the same was likely true of ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses. (This may be the only Paul Hackett-Jamie Tarses comparison you ever see, so be sure to savor it.)

Ancier clearly had his difficulties meshing with the corporate hierarchy at NBC. Yet while NBC has had its share of misfires under him, it's arguable whether Ancier's brief tenure was less successful than any number of executives who occupy the same chair in different venues. Given that NBC currently ranks first among the demographics that matter most to advertisers (and thus senior network suits), his awkwardly orchestrated exit if nothing else sends a chill through network corridors, the latest excuse--in TV's version of Disney's "circle of life"--for programmers to keep the dishes they serve on the bland side.

Stoddard clearly exaggerated when he likened network service to a prison term, but those ushered out almost before they can finish decorating their offices will no doubt laugh through gritted teeth. And if the sentences have gotten shorter, the truth is they still don't make a lot of sense.

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