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Columbia Network Chief to Leave Amid Restructuring

Entertainment: Helene Michaels' exit comes after the arrival of Len Grossi, head of Sony's TV unit.

October 18, 2000|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Helene Michaels is leaving her position as president of network production at Columbia TriStar Television, continuing a period of executive turnover at the Sony Pictures Entertainment division.

Michaels' forced exit comes six months after the arrival of Len Grossi as president of Sony's television unit. Grossi was hired by Sony Co-President Mel Harris, who returned to the company overseeing television in September 1999, spurring the departure of Sony Television Group President Jon Feltheimer and Executive Vice President Andy Kaplan.

Michaels started out as an assistant to Feltheimer and was promoted to her current job last year, when Eric Tannenbaum moved over to become president of Michael Ovitz's Artists Television Group. A replacement has yet to be named.

Lacking ties to a major broadcast network, Columbia TriStar has been handicapped in selling prime-time series. The company placed one new program on this season's fall schedule--the CBS comedy "Bette," starring Bette Midler--compared with four from ATG. Sony is helping bankroll ATG in exchange for rights to distribute its programming and also has a distribution arrangement with Brillstein-Grey Entertainment.

Sony has seen encouraging signs recently regarding its TV operation. "Bette" premiered to strong initial ratings, and two returning CBS series, "King of Queens" and "Family Law," appear to be blossoming into modest hits.

To get those shows on the air, however, Sony had to provide CBS an ownership interest in them, meaning the Viacom-owned network will share any profits. All the networks, in fact, have put an emphasis on owning programs they broadcast--hoping to bathe in a second stream of revenue, from selling the rerun rights.

Grossi said that being independent offers Sony an advantage in striking such partnerships, with studios often looking warily at projects from a competitor.

Despite speculation the company may scale back its prime-time production effort, Grossi said Sony remains committed to it, but hopes to proceed judiciously. .

"We are a studio. We intend to stay a studio," Grossi said.

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