Just weeks after Seagram sold the bulk of its TV assets to Barry Diller, the first big shoe has dropped. Universal TV Group chairman Greg Meidel will not be joining the newly formed Diller-led company called USA Networks Inc.
A Universal spokeswoman confirmed late Wednesday the stunning news of Meidel’s planned departure and issued the following statement: “Greg and Barry Diller were unable to come to an agreement. Greg will remain with Universal to ensure the transition is as seamless as possible.”
The news calls into question whether any of Meidel’s chief lieutenants, including Universal TV prexy Ken Solomon and president of worldwide TV distribution James McNamara, as well as USA Networks founder and chairman Kay Koplovitz, will stay in their present jobs. Sources say McNamara is unlikely to play any role at the new USA Networks.
Meidel did not return phone calls, but issued a statement: “I’ve had the opportunity to build an incredible team here at Universal, and I wish them, along with Barry, every success in the world.”
Word of the rift between Meidel and Diller came as a surprise to some insiders at Universal and Diller’s HSN, Inc., because as recently as Tuesday, Diller and Meidel had been getting along and were negotiating terms of Meidel’s transition to USA Networks, sources said.
One U source said Diller and Seagram’s Edgar Bronfman Jr. were huddling in Meidel’s office late Wednesday trying to convince the executive to stay.
Another U source said talks between the two fell apart over money, although others questioned whether Diller ever intended to keep Meidel aboard at the new USA Networks. That entity will consist of the USA Network cabler, the Sci-Fi Channel, Universal’s domestic TV operations, Diller’s Silver King station group and the Home Shopping Network.
Diller and Meidel have known each other for 18 years, and they worked together at both Paramount and Fox. However, the execs have strikingly different styles. Meidel is considered the ultimate salesman, while Diller is tough, irascible and blunt.
“Meidel and Diller are like oil and water,” said one top Hollywood executive upon learning of Meidel’s exit.
Although Meidel and Diller each publicly praised the other after the surprise announcement Oct. 20 that Diller would essentially buy Universal TV, Meidel was not in the loop during Diller’s secret dealings with Seagram.
At the time some read the Diller-Bronfman negotiations as a vote of no confidence in the team running Universal TV.
One U source said the usually affable and unflappable Meidel had been “uncharacteristically in the dumps” since the Diller takeover.
At U, Meidel’s mantra had been synergy between domestic and international production and distribution — and some wondered openly after the Diller buyout how Meidel would handle the separation of these activities.
Diller’s takeover of Universal TV won’t officially be completed until early next year, so it’s unclear how long Meidel will stay at U or where he will go next.
It’s also unclear whom Diller will hire to run the Universal TV operation once the company is under his wing.
Several Hollywood watchers speculated that Diller would love to hire 20th Century Fox TV President Sandy Grushow, who was Fox Broadcasting Co.’s entertainment president when Diller was chairman of Fox Inc. in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
However, Grushow is under a long-term contract and is said to be perfectly happy at the studio, where his star is on the rise.
Meidel, 43, joined U in January 1996 and immediately set about forming a domestic and international TV team largely in his own image: young, smooth-talking salesmen with syndication experience but limited creative backgrounds.
U’s TV performance had lagged that of the other major studios for several years, and Meidel had a tough task ahead of him in building a division at one of the few studios not aligned with a key station group.
As a quick fix, Meidel and company bought their way into the programming front ranks — most dramatically by snapping up indie syndicator Multimedia Entertainment (“Sally Jessy Raphael,” “Jerry Springer”) late last year.
Prior to joining U, Meidel spent four years as president of Fox’s syndie arm, Twentieth TV. He got his start in the syndie biz at Paramount, joining that studio as a regional division manager in 1979 and leaving in late 1991 as executive VP of sales. Meidel is also the current chairman of NATPE, a title he will relinquish to Cox Broadcasting prexy Nick Trigony in February.
Diller was unavailable for comment on Meidel’s exit; USA Networks topper Koplovitz had no comment.