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Iger symbolizes networks’ domino theory at work

A HIGH SCHOOL PHYSIOLOGY TEACHER was fond of explaining how the body functions by saying, “You don’t buy beer, you only rent it.”

The same can be said of running one of the network entertainment divisions, where longevity has never been part of the routine, and those who occupy the hot seat are really, in a sense, only warming it up for the next guy.

When Robert Iger officially segues to his position as president of the ABC TV Network Group on Jan. 1, he’ll be just two months short of four years in his position as president of ABC Entertainment, a little longer than Peter Chernin’s recent tenure as president of the Fox Entertainment Group.

That makes Jeff Sagansky, president of CBS Entertainment since January 1990, the grand old man of the network game. Warren Littlefield has been the top guy at NBC Entertainment since July 1990, although he actually wasn’t the senior programming exec until Brandon Tartikoff — who had been promoted to chairman of the NBC Entertainment Group — left nearly a year later.

Iger and Chernin, it should be pointed out, get to leave on their own terms. Iger matriculates to a plum management job overseeing the entertainment, news and sports divisions as well as a vast array of other network operations; Chernin segues to the film side where, we’re told, all television people inevitably want to end up.

As for the other current occupants, NBC sales rumors haven’t prevented gossip about Littlefield’s future, while Sagansky and his exec VP Peter Tortorici — the duo who pulled off last year’s historic worst-to-first turnaround, thanks in part to the Olympics, World Series and Super Bowl — are both subject to a more pleasant brand of conjecture about being wooed away to either a studio or a promotion either within or outside their network.

Iger was quite willing to admit, once he became ensconced in the ABC Entertainment post, that he couldn’t foresee himself doing the job for more than three to five years, marveling at Tartikoff’s 10-year tenure at NBC.

DURING TARTIKOFF’S REIGN, in fact, ABC had four entertainment division presidents: Tony Thomopoulos (1978-83), Lew Erlicht (1983-85), Brandon Stoddard (November ’85 to March ’89); and Iger, who will end up surpassing Stoddard’s tenure by about four months.

Over the same period, CBS counted a trio of prexies: B. Donald (Bud) Grant ( 1980-87), Kim LeMasters (1987-89), and Sagansky.

The ironic thing about any president of one of the entertainment divisions, because of the rapid rate of turnover, is that in retrospect it’s so hard to remember where one’s successes and failures began.

Sagansky, for example, helped engineer the reclamation of CBS with strong movies, savvy scheduling and two key shows, “Murphy Brown” and “Rescue 911,” both created during the tenure of his predecessor, LeMasters. Sagansky then took those shows and managed to build around them, with such shows as “Evening Shade” and “Northern Exposure,” while “Murphy” and “Rescue” blossomed into full-fledged hits.

Similarly, Iger inherited “Twin Peaks,””thirtysomething” and “Roseanne,” with all their attendant ups and downs, from the regime of Brandon Stoddard. On the flip side, he’ll leave his successor “Home Improvement,” the aging but still valuable “America’s Funniest” franchise and a lot of classy dramas to choose from with poor-to-borderline ratings.

Littlefield was forced to sort through several remnants of the Tartikoff era, among them the painful process of deciding what to throw away (“Matlock,””In the Heat of the Night,””Golden Girls,””Night Court”) and what to keep (“Cheers, “”L.A. Law”) from those years. That the transition had to be made is undeniable, but NBC’s current woes can probably be traced to trying to do too much too quickly.

Chernin leaves his eventual replacement no shortage of headaches to go along with some solid hits, though enough time has elapsed that it’s hard to remember “Married … With Children” started under Garth Ancier, and that development of both anchor reality series–the Fox Stations Division shows “America’s Most Wanted” and “Cops”– pre-dated Chernin’s arrival.

An executive’s fans, of course, will lay all successes at his doorstep, while detractors are reluctant to acknowledge anything. (At the time Chernin left, for example, one critic defied anyone to name a single hit developed during his stint, then dismissed “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “In Living Color” by attributing them solely to Barry Diller.)

THE ONLY APPROPRIATE ANALOGY, really, is to coaching a major sport, another occupation that can frequently promise a limited lifespan, where the inhabitant is well-paid yet seemingly destined to frustration on one level or another.

New coaches must rely on the recruiting class or draft picks of their predecessor. It takes a few years before their own team, bearing their exclusive stamp, can take the field. And no matter how good a particular year is, they know that even their superstars have a limited shelf life (particularly on the collegiate level) and will soon be moving on.

All of this bears some consideration as ABC, Fox Broadcasting and the other networks go through the unavoidable ritual of changing coaches. In judging those newcomers, it’s important to remember what they inherited, where their bench strength is, and how long it takes before they can really claim the lineup as their own.

In the meantime, the next round of speculation involves finding replacements for Iger and Chernin, and the domino effect those hires — particularly if selected from the outside — will likely produce.

Let the games begin.

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