20-year studio veteran moves to production deal

On the heels of a rough development season, Universal TV president Tom Thayer is ankling the post he’s held since 1991 to take an exclusive development and production job at the studio starting in August.

Thayer has been with U for nearly 20 years, rising from exec assistant to president of the network TV production division. He remained in that post for six years despite massive personnel changes following Greg Meidel’s entry as chairman of the Universal TV Group in January 1996. Thayer is the last operating chief to exit his post since Meidel came aboard.

Sources say Meidel gave Thayer a year to turn the network division around, but the studio is still struggling, especially in terms of comedy production, which tends to reap the biggest syndication rewards. The decision to make a change was made last week in a Seagram corporate meeting, according to a source close to Edgar Bronfman Jr.

“This year was beyond tough,” Thayer told Daily Variety. “Everything that possibly could go wrong went wrong. We had the product, we played ball and nothing came up. It was profoundly frustrating, debilitating and a little bit of a wakeup call for me.”

Thayer, who still had time left on his contract, has now signed a new three-year multiyear production deal that will keep him on the Universal lot with his own production banner called Traveler’s Rest, which he said he has wanted to form since college.

“My sweetest revenge would be to make a hit half-hour for Universal,” Thayer said. “I’d love to do something to make the company some money. If the gods smile and give me the opportunity, I’d love to make a motion picture.”

No replacement for Thayer has yet been named, but rumored candidates are said to include usual suspects such as Carsey-Werner’s Peter Tortorici, ABC’s Stu Bloomberg, DreamWorks’ Ted Harbert, ex-Fox exec Robert Greenblatt and former Orion prexy Gary Randall. Sources said Meidel made a play for ex-ABC exec Mike Rosenfeld and Columbia TriStar TV president Eric Tannenbaum awhile back, but was unable to hire either at the time.

During Thayer’s tenure at the studio, Universal has produced such critically acclaimed dramas as NBC’s “Law & Order” and Fox’s “New York Undercover” from Dick Wolf, which was taken off this fall’s schedule but was ordered as a backup show.

He also has recently signed such creative talent as “Ellen” executive producer Mark Driscoll, “Moesha’s” Ralph Farquhar and Shaun Cassidy.

Thayer sold three new dramas and a new comedy for this summer and fall, including “Roar,” which will air on Fox this summer, “Timecop” for ABC, “Players” for NBC and “The Tom Show” for the WB netlet. He secured significant advance license fee deals on “Timecop” and “Roar.”

Difficult year?

But it was a difficult year in terms of network pickups, starting with NBC’s cancellation of the freshman comedy “Something So Right,” which lasted the entire year and looked until the last minute as if it would get renewed. Sources at the studio called that move “a huge blow.”

NBC’s “Mr. Rhodes,” Fox’s “Sliders” and UPN’s “The Burning Zone” were also canceled. Overall, the studio will have just four shows on the air this fall, totaling 3-1/2 hours, about half the studio’s number at the start of the season.

Other shows Thayer has developed the last couple of seasons include “EZ Streets,” “American Gothic,” “Spy Game” and “Feds,” which are now gone. But he has had luck with longform programs including use of franchises “Murder, She Wrote,” “The Rockford Files” and “Columbo.”

Two series have made it into syndication, “Coach,” which just wrapped its last season on ABC, and “New York Undercover.” But neither is the type of hit that generated a huge backend.

Since Meidel joined U, he has made some big deals on the firstrun syndication side, including the purchase of Multimedia Entertainment’s two talkshows “Jerry Springer” and “Sally Jessy Raphael.” This week, he added “Maury Povich” to the stable.

The studio also owns half of Brillstein-Grey, but it has been less successful developing new firstrun syndication and network shows on its own, and that’s where Meidel plans to focus next.

“Tom had strength in longform and hours, and now we have to look at comedy,” Meidel told Daily Variety. “We have to be less concerned with volume and more concerned with the quality of shows and keeping shows on the air.”

Meidel acknowledged that the climate today is much tougher for a studio with no network distribution arm. “Our biggest customers have also become out biggest competitors. NBC is now a major player in the comedy business.”

Meidel said Thayer will stay on this summer to help get the fall’s new shows launched and to give him time to find a replacement. Meidel said there would be no more changes in the TV division, at least until Thayer’s job is filled.

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