MCA TV seeks out new breed

Rich Frank, Mel Harris and Tom Wertheimer aren’t typical studio TV titans.

Unlike a majority of their counterparts, who rose through the creative ranks to helm studio TV divisions, the three veteran execs took different career paths. Frank and Harris were salesmen who came out of the station side of the industry; Wertheimer started in business affairs.

They now have another common bond: In the past five months, the trio – the last of a breed of “hybrid” execs with backgrounds in the station, sales and business sides of the industry – have either stepped aside or been pushed out of their cushy posts atop the Disney, Sony and Seagram-controlled MCA TV wings.

The most recent casualty, Wertheimer, exec VP of MCA and chairman of the MCA TV Group, chose to resign last week after seeing the writing on the wall. New MCA president-chief operating officer Ron Meyer had been rather openly seeking a replacement for him.

New owner, new times.

Meyer is looking for individuals who can revive the studio’s lackluster TV production and syndication operations. That’s no easy task in an era of media megamergers and strategic alliances, which have pushed out generalists with a broad-based background in favor of specialists who excel in programming, promotion or sales.

The name at the top of a short list at MCA is Twentieth TV president Greg Meidel, who has virtually no network or homevideo experience but is a strong salesman. Fox TV chairman Chase Carey has been working hard to keep Meidel – Twentieth TV has little bench strength to draw on to fill Medial’s sales shoes – but the exec has long coveted a job overseeing both network production and syndication.

The existing structure at Fox would make that difficult, since 20th Century Fox TV president Peter Roth now reports to movie division head Peter Chernin.

The right stuff

Meidel is seen as having the right stuff to turn around the company’s syndication operation, the money engine that drives any network TV operation.

Former CBS Entertainment prexy Peter Tortorici also is in discussions with MCA, possibly for a top creative exec role that would report to Meidel. Another name in the creative mix is Cliff Lachman, a senior VP of production at Paramount. If Meyer is successful in landing Meidel, he could be forced to restructure the TV group, which also encompasses international TV sales, homevideo, cable production, Universal Family Entertainment/Cartoon Studios, and MCA’s 50% stake in the USA Networks. A hot rumor making the studio commissary rounds last week had homevid moving from the TV to the film side of MCA.

Because it’s virtually impossible to find an exec these days that has experience in the vast creative, business and sales side of TV, industry pundits say studios will now have to take a different tack in filling top positions.

Many cite the model employed by DreamWorks, which bills itself as a studio for the 21st century. It shuns titles and fiefdoms in favor of a teamwork approach.

On the TV side, for instance, DreamWorks brought aboard two high-ranking Fox execs: Ken Solomon (who had been considered the heir apparent to Meidel) in a loosely defined overall sales and programming role, and Dan McDermott to oversee TV production.

Together, the two staff execs are working hand-in-hand with former Buena Vista TV president Bob Jacquemin, a top-level DreamWorks consultant who has been mapping out the new studio’s strategy in television and calling many of the shots.

Frank has sat on the sidelines since leaving Disney in March. From his vantage point, the high-level shuffling in executive suites shows “that we’re ready for the next turnover in the business. People are getting shots at doing everything.”

Frank himself says he is looking for something “more transactional” than just running another TV division. In other words, he wants to get involved in a venture that is new and different and would provide him with some equity.

He’s not the only TV exec looking for a new challenge. Many suits say they are getting restless sitting on the sidelines with the business changing at such a rapid clip.

For the Meyers of the world who are charged with filling key executive posts, Frank insists they just have to go with their instincts.

“They are going to have to choose someone they think is good, take a deep breath and hope it works,” he says. “I knew nothing about (network) TV when I took it and neither did Mel Harris.”

Frank’s chance

Jeffrey Katzenberg, the DreamWorks principal who formerly ran Walt Disney Studios, took a chance on Frank, just as Frank had done on him when the two were at Paramount. Frank hired Katzenberg out of the marketing department at Par to oversee the launch of a fourth network, an effort that ultimately failed to get off the ground.

“You have to find someone who you believe can do it,” Frank says. “Too many people play up the fact that someone is a production guy and someone else is from the distribution team. All you really need to do these jobs is have good taste… and commercial sense.”

Iger’s intuition

A perfect example, according to Frank, is Capital Cities/ABC’s Robert Iger. “No one thought he could be creative. But they put him in charge of entertainment and ABC went to No. l.”

“Every company looks (at hiring) a little differently,” says Bill Simon, managing director of the worldwide entertainment and media division at the headhunting firm Korn/Ferry Intl. The studios and networks want development types who can come up with great concepts and others with a strong business background. At NBC Prods., for instance, creative head Michael Zinberg reports to NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer rather than John Agoglia, NBC Prods, president and entertainment business chief.

“You’ve got to have somebody who recognizes talent,” says a one-time studio exec. In the case of the Warner Bros, and United Paramount networks, much of the initial emphasis, he says, was on having executives – Jamie Kellner and Lucie Salhany – who had a strong background in distribution and knew how to deal with and mollify affiliates.

Similarly, some of the new corporate bosses are looking for TV chiefs who know the sales market, with less emphasis on having been close to actually producing programs. Those priorities, the exec says, “give you a perspective on how they see the future evolving.”

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