On the heels of its $4 billion deal with Barry Diller, Universal Studios has retooled what’s left of its TV operations and has tapped Blair Westlake to run them.
As the chairman of newly created Universal Networks and Worldwide Television Distribution Group, Westlake effectively becomes the highest-ranking TV exec at the studio. He’ll oversee all the revamped activities of the TV unit — international television programming development, production and distribution, and domestic television distribution of Universal’s feature film library and networks.
No two Hollywood studios organize their TV activities in exactly the same way, but U’s arrangement arguably gives Westlake, 43, more international clout than any of his counterparts at the other studios. It also gives him some domestic responsibilities, including the syndication of movie packages to stations and cable.
In addition, Westlake will continue to oversee the company’s overall TV business development activities, including the acquisition of broadcast and cable services, and the launch of channels utilizing U’s feature and TV libraries.
For the past two years, he held the titles of president of U pay TV and TV business development. He’ll continue to report to Frank Biondi, chairman and CEO of Universal Studios.
“What’s happened is that all the pieces of Universal’s TV business, outside of production and domestic syndication, have been reshuffled and fallen into Westlake’s hands,” said one veteran TV exec who follows the studio. Westlake, the source added, is regarded as a highly competent exec and a skilled negotiator, but one who is being handed a particularly tricky assignment.
While network and syndicated shows like U’s “Law & Order,” “Hercules” and “Sally Jessy Raphael” will now be created and licensed domestically by Diller’s USA Networks, they will be exploited abroad by Westlake’s staff at U. All foreign channel spinoffs, including USA’s Sci-Fi as well as Universal’s new action cabler 13th Street, will in future be marketed, programmed and distributed internationally by Westlake’s group.
How the retooled U TV distribution group liaises with and cooperates with the Diller-led USA Networks entity is an open question, one that will depend greatly on Westlake’s managerial and people skills, other sources told Daily Variety.
Biondi told Daily Variety that the appointment of Westlake would help “to build the global value of the Universal brand.”
Biondi stressed that the separation of production and distribution activities was not unprecedented in the TV business. “In some ways, the deal (with Diller) is unusual, but we don’t view it as a literal separation of activities.”
Westlake, too, emphasized that one of his main challenges would be to cooperate with the execs at USA Networks to maximize the international potential of their product.
“One of my chief tasks,” Westlake said, “is to manage the windows and exploit the product they create through all the TV media.”
Universal Intl. Television president Armando Nunez Jr., who currently oversees the sale of U’s programming to free TV outlets abroad, will now report to Westlake; so too will USA Networks’ Intl. president Rafael Pastore, who oversees the development of USA Network and the Sci-Fi channel spinoffs abroad as well as the sale of USA’s shows abroad.
In addition, the former Multimedia execs involved with creating local talk shows abroad will now come under Westlake’s purview. (U acquired Multimedia last year specifically for its talk show expertise.)
Most of U’s television production activities as well as its domestic syndication efforts have moved over under the USA Networks’ umbrella in a complicated arrangement with Diller announced three weeks ago.
Just how well the separation of production from distribution, and domestic sales from foreign sales, will play out is unclear.
Universal TV Group chairman Greg Meidel — the exec who most loudly touted the positive synergies between production and distribution, domestic and foreign — has signed on to the new Diller entity and will oversee the domestic TV activities of the newly bolstered USA Networks Inc.
It is understood James McNamara, president of worldwide distribution for Universal, will not stay. Since he oversaw both domestic and international sales, and his domestic duties were shifted to the USA Networks banner, his future job at U would have been diminished.
The Universal Worldwide TV Group under Westlake will now be the sole international distributor of product created by USA Networks under Diller. It will also be responsible for the sale domestically of all U feature films, and for USA Network product to station, cable and pay cable outlets.
Westlake and Biondi also said Universal would continue to create product for its international customers, including talk show formats as well as TV shows and movies based on U’s extensive library.
During his 15-year tenure with Universal Studios, Westlake has held numerous management positions with the MCA Home Entertainment Group, including exec VP and senior VP roles. Westlake joined MCA Inc. as an attorney in the law department in 1982.