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Cloudy crystal ball for TV

Six entertainment presidents of broadcast networks peer into the future at a crowded Beverly Hills luncheon.

October 21, 2006|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Television's so-called network chiefs did lunch in Beverly Hills, and perhaps like so many other afternoon meals in this town much was said, but much more was left unsaid.

The Thursday lunch held at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel followed the bad news over that morning's breakfast, which reported that NBC Universal was cutting roughly 5% of its work force and will largely turn over its 8 p.m. time slot to reality programming and game shows.

So when the entertainment presidents representing six television networks took the stage, the spotlight immediately fell on NBC's Kevin Reilly to explain what exactly was going on at his workplace.

Speaking to a theme that animated much of the afternoon's discussion, Reilly said the rise of digital media is "drastically impacting" their business and will certainly continue to do so over the next couple of years.

Like other traditional media such as newspapers and radio, television's once-huge audience has been gradually eroded by a river of competitors that include cable television, video games, iPods and the Internet. And as Reilly sat beside his counterparts -- Stephen McPherson of ABC, Nina Tassler of CBS, Peter Liguori of Fox, Dawn Ostroff of the CW and Jack Abernethy of My Network -- the president of NBC Entertainment clearly suggested corporate reductions wouldn't be confined to his network.

"Right now, if you're in a company that's in an upswing or having particularly good returns in certain divisions, you may be a little bit insulated at this moment in time perhaps putting off some of the hard decisions," said Reilly, speaking at the luncheon sponsored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Hollywood Radio & Television Society. "There's more coming."

But in case anybody in the crowded ballroom of several hundred was getting the wrong idea, Tassler of CBS set them straight. "Broadcast television is in very good shape," she said. It's "still the epicenter of content."

From there, in a question-and-answer session adroitly moderated by Andrew Wallenstein of the Hollywood Reporter, the chiefs briefly touched on a wide range of issues facing the networks. Despite the day's earlier grim news, the roughly hourlong event remained friendly among the competitors.

When Wallenstein asked the panel why this fall season produced no new breakaway hit with the possible exception of NBC's "Heroes," the chiefs blamed a plethora of entertainment choices and a rush to judgment.

"You're a month into the season and we're already declaring hits and misses," said Liguori of Fox. "The bulk of these shows are grown over time.... We have to distance ourselves from the critics, the trades and the papers."

The entertainment presidents seemed to agree that whatever their problems were with the digital media, they can't be overcome solely by answering with digital wizardry of their own.

"This isn't about moving away from broadcast into these other platforms," said McPherson of ABC. "Technology can't be the leader, it's always got to be content."

But to attract an audience, they must first be interested. And perhaps, as Liguori said, the network gatekeepers may be preventing innovative shows from reaching the air, thus driving them elsewhere.

"The current system kind of pulls the reins on [creativity] too much," Liguori said. "For us to survive as a business and an industry we need to be a little more audacious with our choices and taking chances."

Added Reilly: "We're in the big-bet business. We're going to continue to make big bets with expensive shows, and some are going to pay off."

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