Moonves rises in WB combo

Time Warner will consolidate its two main network production divisions, Lorimar TV and Warner Bros. TV, resulting in the long-expected ascension of Lorimar prez Leslie Moonves and the shuttling of Warner Bros. TV topper Harvey Shephard into an independent production deal.

The combined operation, Warn-er Bros. TV Production, will encompass both Lorimar and WB TV projects, with all new and future series falling under the banner and Moonves heading the division. The company is evaluating redundancies at the two units, a process like-ly to yield staff reductions within the next two weeks.

In essence, Lorimar becomes WB TV Production, assimilating programs and other to-be-determined staff and assets of Warner Bros. TV.

“By and large, the Lorimar staff will remain intact,” Moonves said, augmented by certain WB TV personnel. New shows this fall, such as Lorimar’s “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and WB’s “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.,” will fall under the WB TV Production label, while longer-running series like “Full House” and “Family Matters” retain the Lorimar label.

Warner Bros. TV has been outshone by Lorimar since the latter’s parent company was acquired in 1989, as Lorimar racked up series sales — consistently ranking as primetime’s top supplier, with 13 series slated for fall — while the studio’s namesake division lagged.

Still, Warner Bros. Inc. exec VP Barry M. Meyer, who oversees the television arms and to whom Moonves continues to report, said the decision was based less on a perceived under-performance by Warner Bros. TV than the sorry financial state of primetime TV.

“At some point you realize the economics of your industry cannot support the way you were doing business,” Meyer said, adding later, “It’s not about a good year or a bad year” at Warner Bros. TV.

Distinct advantage

The studio initially promoted the value of having two distinct, independent production houses when it acquired Lorimar-Telepictures in 1989. The feeling was that such an approach provided an advantage by offering different points of view and additional at-bats in the primetime game.

In addition, it’s been assumed that the webs are wary of extending too many commitments to a single entity. There’s already been concern that ABC, for example, will be reluctant to buy new programs from Lorimar since the company already provides the network with five fall series and at one point last season had nine shows on the web.

“That’s always been that fear, and a reason to keep them separate entities,” one studio source said.

Meyer acknowledged that there was logic in the strategy when formulated but called it “a luxurious philosophy that we just can’t afford anymore.” He added the goal now is less to secure network shelf space than to do business in a sensible fashion, placing resources into development and production instead of overhead.

Observers anticipate that in addition to staff cuts, the consolidation may also augur settling with producers who had been under contract to Warner Bros. TV, though Meyer said WB executives “haven’t addressed that yet.”

The shift continues the rise of Moonves within the Time Warner hierarchy. He joined Lorimar as VP movies and miniseries in 1985 and went through several promotions before bumping David Salzman as division head in October 1990.

Since then, even with the decline of its primetime soaps “Dallas” and “Knots Landing,” Lorimar has remained network TV’s 800-pound gorilla on the supply side , placing no fewer than 11 shows on the three network/Fox Broadcasting fall lineups each of the last three seasons.

Shephard, meanwhile, will segue into an exclusive independent production agreement with the studio through WB TV Production, partnering with senior VP of creative affairs Fran McConnell, who joined the division last year.

Rumors of a consolidation of the divisions or changes at WB TV have been rampant for some time, fueled by the internecine rivalry. In fact, it came as a surprise to many in the industry when the studio confirmed a new five-year agreement with Shephard in June 1992, after a perceived subpar selling season that spurred the exit of senior VP of creative affairs Norman Stephens and comedy development VP Pat Quinn.

McConnell came aboard shortly thereafter, but WB’s fortunes didn’t improve appreciably this year, as the unit sold only two new series — the Fox Broadcasting Co. hour “Brisco County” and “Tall Hopes,” a summer replacement on CBS — to augment the ongoing hit “Murphy Brown.”

WB also produces “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues” for the studio’s syndicated primetime Entertainment Network and still has a trio of pilots alive for next year. The division recently has enjoyed its greatest success in the longform area, including upcoming miniseries sequels to “The Thorn Birds” and “North & South” through its affiliation with the Wolper Organization.

Shephard acknowledged that the studio can no longer justify two administrative payrolls in the current climate, with production by network in-house divisions increasing and secondary markets for programming diminishing.

“The business is changing,” he said. “This sort of downsizing is going on throughout American industry.”

He added that he’d been offered an executive position elsewhere in the company but opted for the production deal, pointing out that network exec-turned-producer Fred Silverman looked extremely happy and content these days.

Sources note that the long-term deal inked with Shephard last year — when there’d already been talk of Moonves heading both divisions — represented WB chairman Robert A. Daly showing his loyalty and “taking care of Harvey” as a hedge against possible changes. Shephard worked under Daly until 1980 — when Daly was president of CBS Entertainment — and was reunited with the exec when Shephard became prexy of WB TV in June 1986.

Major supplier

With “Brisco” and “Murphy Brown” thrown into the Lorimar column, the new single entity will account for 15 fall series totaling 9 1/2 hours, far more than any other unit. Time Warner can also corporately claim three comedies through HBO Independent Prods. and another from Witt-Thomas Prods., which functions autonomously under a deal with Warner Bros. Inc.

Although WB is consolidating, some other studios still see value in multiple production banners. Sony Pictures Entertainment operates both Columbia Pictures TV and TriStar TV banners, and Fox Inc. has a half-dozen different in-house primetime production banners. The Sony units, however, share certain non-creative areas, such as legal affairs and PR, to hold down costs.

Beyond its network production, Warner Bros. has established a beachhead in syndication with the primetime Entertainment Network, consisting of the action hours “Kung Fu” and Lorimar’s “Time Trax.”

The studio plans to add a second two-hour programming block and reportedly has flirted with expanding the venture further through an alliance with the Chris-Craft station group, which includes WWOR in New York and KCOP in Los Angeles.

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