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Desperate Networks Bill Carter Doubleday: 404 pp., $26.95

April 30, 2006|Howard Rosenberg | Howard Rosenberg, The Times' former television critic, won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of "Not So Prime Time: Chasing the Trivial on American Television."

SHOUTS of "Fumo! Fumo!" erupted when white puffs of smoke floated from the roof of CBS headquarters recently, while below, on the pavement, the media were a seething mass of excitement. At last, Dan Rather's permanent successor had been named. And coverage of Katie Couric's ascension to the Holy See of CBS News, as vicar of Leslie Moonves, was typically bombastic, with Newsweek magazine, for one, asking on its "Katie's News" cover: "Will She Shine at Night ... And Who Will Watch?"

The Los Angeles Times, too, attached cosmic relevance to Couric's coming move, with Calendar lavishing more than 40 inches (plus nine grinning photos) on painstaking, in-depth coverage of her "perkiness." As if the multitudes shared this media fixation on Couric being named "CBS Evening News" anchor -- and its designated ratings rejuvenator -- after a long, glittery run fronting NBC's durable "Today" program.

Segments of U.S. media have long operated within a ring of insularity, guided by the unsound premise that what infatuates them necessarily arouses the public with similar intensity. A reason for this twisted perspective is that reporters spend a lot of time schmoozing with other reporters, building a consensus of the few. One wonders, therefore, whether ordinary Americans care much, or should care, about the tangle of industry subtexts that beguile many who work in or report on television.

Bill Carter's reply in "Desperate Networks" is yes. A presumption of wide public interest underlies his spirited account of the bitter executive rivalries and elaborate program strategies at the networks that Carter covers so astutely for the New York Times. He visited this neighborhood in long form earlier. His last book, "The Late Shift," crept backstage to eyeball the power struggle behind Jay Leno besting David Letterman in the quest to succeed Johnny Carson as host of NBC's "Tonight" show in 1992. And now, heeere's "Desperate Networks," in which Carter again pulls apart and scrutinizes the tinker toy that is commercial television, this time spending 400 pages inside a closet racked to the max with network suits and small-screen dandies.

His book's title, a play on ABC's hit series "Desperate Housewives," refers to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox jockeying for audience earlier this millennium while nervously watching advertising dollars stream to cable and the Internet. Carter writes of shrewd moves by industry opportunists, along with opportunities missed. He frames his story in large part around dueling moguls, most notably CBS Corp. Chief Executive Moonves versus Jeff Zucker, now CEO of NBC Universal Television Group. What he describes is not quite the life-and-death bada bing of Tony Soprano versus Johnny Sack on HBO or even Patton racing Montgomery to Messina in World War II. But Carter does ratchet up his narrative by evoking the tone and idiom of military combat, as when Moonves at one point is urged by an underling to redeploy "Survivor" and boldly strike at NBC's greatest strength in prime time: "Boss, if we don't attack Thursday now, we never will."

In fact, most of the players in "Desperate Networks" are on the attack. This is, after all, a business that rarely rewards the unassertive. Take Stephen McPherson, head of ABC's entertainment division; his hot temper earned him the nickname "purple Steve," Carter learns from an unnamed executive. Equally conspicuous here is Mike Darnell, the diminutive Fox impresario whose lust for predatory, anything-goes trash (think "When Animals Attack" and "World's Deadliest Swarms") makes him the bloodthirsty Chucky doll of programmers, affirming Paddy Chayefsky's dark prophecy in "Network."

At its best, "Desperate Networks" delivers fascinating, snappily decoded insights into TV blockbusters. A must-read is Carter's entertaining reprise of CBS giving birth to an 800-ton Godzilla -- "Survivor" -- after ABC had twice rejected producer Mark Burnett's creation. "This was either going to be a brave new world for network television," Carter writes of "Survivor" emerging, "or the dark night of its soul; but whatever it was going to be, Leslie Moonves had opened the door to it."

Nearly as intriguing is Carter's story behind ABC moving to ratings-rich Wisteria Lane on Sunday nights with "Desperate Housewives" -- which he says NBC had summarily turned down with "a fleeting look and good-bye" -- and the riches-to-rags-to-riches odyssey of the show's witty and resilient creator, Marc Cherry.

On a more somber note deep in his book, Carter eulogizes Peter Jennings with a moving account of his cancer-ridden last days at ABC News.

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