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Changing the TV Channels

Universal's television chief, Michael Jackson, energizes the division's cable lineup

June 08, 2003|Richard Verrier and Sallie Hofmeister | Times Staff Writers

At a gathering of the Hollywood Radio and Television Society in Beverly Hills several weeks ago, Universal Television Group chief Michael Jackson stood out in more ways than one.

It wasn't just the British accent or the quirky purple striped socks he was wearing in a sea of Armani suits, but his unconventional praise for "reality" TV.

Unlike many of his colleagues who have derided the popular phenomenon, the soft-spoken yet opinionated Jackson had the cheek to suggest that unscripted dramas challenge television writers to create characters as compelling as the "Joe Millionaire" crowd.

"I see the reality shows as much better at dealing with questions of class or gender than the average comedy or drama," said Jackson, smiling faintly as he snacked from a bowl of blueberries in a recent interview at L'Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills. "They've stirred the pot."

Stirring the pot has been Jackson's trademark since the provocative 45-year-old stormed British television several years ago with popular and sometimes controversial shows, among them "Queer as Folk," a raw look at gay sexuality.

Now, as Jackson finds himself presiding over what many consider the crown jewels of Vivendi Universal's far-flung entertainment empire, the Hollywood outsider is making waves inside America's TV establishment. Bold and unconventional programming choices have helped elevate the profile of Universal Television as its corporate parent plans to unload its Universal holdings to raise much-needed cash.

The cable channels USA Network, Sci Fi and Trio are valued at about $6 billion. The TV production group, which produces the three "Law & Order" dramas, is seeking more than $550 million a year over three years from NBC to continue broadcasting the shows.

Amid corporate upheaval, Jackson has led an unlikely resurgence of the USA Network and continued growth of the Sci Fi cable channel through such hit series as the TV detective drama "Monk" and "Dead Zone," based on the Stephen King best-seller, as well as a stable of top-rated original movies and mini-series such as Steven Spielberg's look at alien abduction, "Taken."

Ratings Jump

Last year, USA Network saw an 11% jump in its ratings, becoming the second-most-watched basic cable network, closely behind TNT, by the 18-to-49-year-old group most coveted by advertisers. Sci Fi jumped 20% to become the 10th-most-watched cable channel.

The group, like many in cable, is expected to post large gains in advertising sales for the coming year.

Not surprisingly, it's the lucrative TV operation, especially Sci Fi, that is of most interest to various media companies eyeing Universal, including Viacom Inc., Liberty Media Co., MGM and General Electric Co.'s NBC. Formal bids could emerge this month.

Jackson is no stranger to the uncertainty for his division.

Media mogul Barry Diller hired Jackson in summer 2001 to head his entertainment group. Jackson was in the job only a few months when Diller sold the operation to Vivendi, which by that time had purchased Universal's movie studios and theme parks. Diller remained chairman of a new joint venture that reunited Universal's television and film operations.

The new Paris-based management promoted Jackson to chairman of Universal Television Group, continuing his oversight of the TV group. But over the next 18 months, Vivendi nearly collapsed, then-CEO Jean-Marie Messier was ousted and Diller resigned to focus on his electronic commerce business.

"We've gone from a mogul in Barry Diller to an emperor in Jean-Marie Messier to a situation where anything could happen," Jackson said.

Industry analysts credit Jackson and his team for building momentum during such a tumultuous period.

"They've managed very well in a tough ad and economic environment," said cable industry analyst Larry Gerbrandt. "It would have been very easy to get distracted."

Despite being a stranger to Hollywood, Jackson didn't face a steep learning curve.

"The whole British accent is a ruse," joked David Kissinger, president of Universal Television Productions. "He's more steeped in the history and mechanics of the TV business than most Americans."

After last month's upfront presentations -- when broadcast networks pick up new prime-time shows for the fall -- Jackson came into the office the following Monday having watched every new television pilot, Kissinger recalled. "I hadn't found the time," said Kissinger, who was stunned.

Jackson's passion for television took root early. In the small town outside Manchester, England, where Jackson grew up, TV provided one of the few forms of entertainment. Skinny and reserved, Jackson, the son of a baker, was fascinated by American pop culture. His favorite television show was "Batman."

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