Primetime retreat

Col TriStar shutters, Warner Bros. TV putters

HOLLYWOOD — The small-screen biz got a little bit smaller last week.

With the slumping TV economy showing no sign of bouncing back any time soon, two major studios took steps to adjust to the difficult times.

Sony shuttered its Columbia TriStar Television unit, beginning a process that will result in the loss of as many as 70 jobs — including those of prexy Len Grossi and network production topper Tom Mazza.

And a few miles north of Hollywood, Burbank, Calif.-based Warner Bros. Television — which is very definitely not getting out of the primetime biz — nonetheless took the unusual step of scaling back its roster of overall deals, dropping up to 10 scribes-producers.

While the strategies behind the respective decisions are very different, both indicate just how hard it’s become to make money in the network TV business.

With the scatter ad market showing no sign of recovery, it seems inevitable that several major TV companies will be forced to implement further budget cuts — and quite possibly layoffs.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says one top agent. “If the upfronts next May are as bad as this year, we’re going to see one or two more years of this.”

The cutbacks at Warner Bros. TV, according to execs at the studio, are part of an overall cost-savings effort at the AOL Time Warner company. Producers of many of the studio’s primetime skeins are also being asked to look for savings wherever possible.

The scribes-producers being cut will be paid most or all of what’s contractually due to them.

WBTV insiders said the cuts won’t impact the studio’s output since the scribes being trimmed haven’t been successful at coming up with successful series or ideas for shows.

Sony’s decision, on the other hand, means the studio is largely abandoning primetime — for now, at least.

Steve Mosko, the well-respected head of Sony’s syndie unit, will serve as prexy of the newly formed Columbia TriStar Domestic Television. He’ll oversee what’s left of Sony’s network operations, while continuing to run the company’s syndie and cable production efforts.

In announcing the cutbacks, Sony Pictures Entertainment COO/prexy Mel Harris said the Internet and ad revenue boom of the 1990s helped mask the inherent flaws in the traditional net-studio model. “The mold we’ve broken is the large, roster-based, network primetime deep development, heavy-deficit, hoping for that one play to recoup it all mold,” Harris says. “That’s a model we’re not going forward with.”

Harris and Mosko say CTDT will continue to pursue “selected network programming opportunities” in a “targeted manner.” Company will also hold on to its seven current primetime programs, including “King of Queens,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “The Guardian.”

“We’re going to continue to be a major player in the TV business,” Mosko says. “We’re involved in syndication and cable, and in network, we’ll be involved in an opportunistic basis.”

Some believe Sony’s decision to abandon primetime will ultimately hurt the company’s syndie business by drying up the supply of big sitcom hits (think “Mad About You” or “Seinfeld”) that bring in hundreds of millions in backend coin.

Harris, however, says there are other ways to make money in TV.

“There are ball games that are won with singles and doubles, and some that are won with home runs,” he says. “The singles and doubles game is a perfectly respectable way to play the game.”

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