Web prexies wrangle over show ownership

Clinton b'cast proves hot topic

While the topic of broadcasting the unexpurgated testimony of President Clinton inevitably came up, Tuesday’s annual gathering of six network entertainment presidents inevitably got down to more nitty-gritty matters.

What generated the most discussion at the Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon was NBC’s hardball tactics in extracting ownership concessions from producers of new shows.

NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield defended his network’s aggressive stance toward series ownership.

“Yeah, we’re all Mafia hit people,” Littlefield quipped sarcastically. “We’ve been pretty articulate and upfront about our desire to have a portion of our schedule we’re in control of. … We do not seek to own all our product.”

NBC has, in fact, been telling producers it will do business only with those who grant partial ownership of all its new series or with those who offer perpetual license fee deals that prevent producers from taking a show elsewhere after four years. Rival networks UPN and CBS, in particular, went on the offensive against NBC demands.

Ownership debate

“If you base scheduling on whether you have an ownership stake, it’s the death knell,” said newly named CBS Entertainment prexy Nancy Tellem in her first public appearance since taking the position. “NBC is taking a more aggressive approach to it, and we don’t endorse it.”

Of course, CBS owns part of six of seven new fall series, which Tellem called a coincidence.

“Everyone is exerting pressure,” Littlefield shot back. “We have chosen to be upfront and say here are our goals. … Not everyone has come on board. But what we have not done is put guns to people’s heads at the last moment.”

ABC and Fox, which are both part of companies that own studios, largely remained on the sidelines of the debate. However, UPN entertainment president Tom Nunan, whose netlet is co-owned by Paramount, espoused the positives of the netlets.

“There’s an opportunity at the alternative networks for people to come on and own their programming outright,” Nunan said. “There are still places you can go where you won’t have a pound of flesh extracted to get on the air.”

Air of hypocrisy

Hitting on other touchy subjects, WB programming president Garth Ancier said the fact that the networks aired the tape of President Clinton’s testimony to the grand jury shows the hypocrisy of Washington pressuring Hollywood to place content warning labels on entertainment shows.

“I find it rather odd that we can play four hours of very graphic testimony on all the networks, and then we try in the fictional arena to run warnings on programs,” Ancier said. “That has to change the discussion of what the standards are.”

The web chiefs also debated how far the broadcast networks should push the content envelope in an attempt to compete with cable.

“As broadcasters, if we’re going to try to take on cable at their game, we’re going to lose,” Littlefield said. “Cable can give you more violence and explicit sexuality.”

Littlefield added that he was pleased advertisers did not shy away from NBC’s new sitcom “Will & Grace,” the first post- “Ellen” sitcom to feature a gay lead character. “It was a great message to go out there with that show and have advertisers say, ‘Smart. Funny. We like it.’ ”

Another hot topic at the HRTS luncheon was the proliferation of newsmags and reality series, which the networks are deploying more because they work in troubled timeslots and cost less to produce.

Troubling trend

Fox, CBS, UPN and the WB all said the trend was troubling. “I think we’re getting to the point of oversaturation,” said Fox entertainment group president Peter Roth, whose network airs just one newsmag, but numerous reality series and specials.

“I think what we need to focus on more is entertainment programming,” Tellem added. “We’ve well exceeded the balance.”

Ancier said the danger of airing too many newsmags is that the networks “run a real risk of changing the perception of the network and the brand.” Nunan echoed that sentiment: “Ultimately you will age up the network faster than anyone might have predicted.”

Still, all the network entertainment chiefs admitted they need to find new and less expensive forms of programming while maintaining quality. ABC entertainment president Jamie Tarses touted ABC’s summer improv gameshow “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” as an example of an innovative and entertaining but inexpensive show.

Ending the luncheon, each of the network presidents named the new or non-network shows they covet the most. Roth named MTV’s “Celebrity Death Match” and “Felicity,” while Littlefield wants wrestling and “South Park” and Ancier wishes he could have ” ‘Sports Night’ without the laugh track and ‘Fantasy Island.’ ”

Nunan said he covets “Fantasy Island” and “Martial Law,” while Tellem said she liked “Felicity” and “Jesse” and Tarses salivated over “Felicity” and “King of Queens.”

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