Sony is off primetime pony

Foreign and syndie operations won't be impacted by decision

As CBS/Broadcast Group president in the early 1990s, Howard Stringer railed against the financial interest and syndication rules and lobbied for their repeal.

But seven years after those rules disappeared , industry soothsayers who predicted the demise of indie and non-aligned studios have been proven at least partially correct.

The latest casualty in this vertically integrated, multichannel world? Columbia TriStar Television, which Stringer now oversees as Sony Corp. of America’s chairman-CEO.

Producing for primetime TV has become an inherently bad business, Stringer says. Over the next few weeks and months, Sony will most likely get out of that business — though to what extent, and with how many job cuts, remains unclear.

Although Stringer doesn’t place sole blame for the exit on the demise of the fin-syn rules, without that protection it’s become virtually impossible for a studio like Columbia TriStar, which doesn’t have a network partner, to produce primetime series without folding to web demands.

Stringer blames an industry that has refused to change despite warnings over the past few years that the traditional production model doesn’t work. That includes pricey talent deals, most of which result in unprofitable product — if anything at all.

“It doesn’t make any sense anymore,” Stringer told Variety. “I don’t want to be part of a system that doesn’t bring returns on Sony’s investment.”

Network TV is an inherently bad business, Stringer argues. Although Columbia TriStar TV is in no worse shape than it has been in recent years, Stringer is putting his actions where his mouth is and getting out — now.

But not doing so petulantly or with finality. Indeed, Stringer insists he’s totally open to returning to network TV provided “someone shows me how to do it profitably.”

“I love the TV business,” he says. “I want to stay in it; I’m not slamming any doors long-term. I just don’t want to be in a situation where people routinely lead you into quicksand and tell you it’s the beach.”

There have to be “different ways,” the Welsh-born executive says. “I am committed to assessing them on their merits.”

While there’s no doubt outside factors have led to the latest decision by CTTV, not everyone agrees that it’s impossible for an indie to flourish in today’s environment. “The network television business can be a very good business if you are able to manage your costs in an effective way,” says Jay Sures, co-head of United Talent Agency’s TV division.

Critics say CTTV has made too many big-buck overall deals — pacts that couldn’t possibly be supported without an alliance with a network to guarantee a home for the product of those deals.

“They’re paying full-cost for talent, but they’re only getting half the profits,” says one top TV agent.

What’s more, CTTV development execs have been unlucky in finding hits to replace the “Married…with Children” or “Mad About You” successes of the early ’90s.”Sony doesn’t have that one show that is its cash cow,” one industry exec says. “Studios USA has Dick Wolf. DreamWorks has ‘Spin City.’ ”

Although Sony’s stock value has dramatically stumbled (due to the electronics business), Sony Pictures Entertainment’s performance has held steady.

According to Stringer, the film division is having a good year, while Sony Home Entertainment and Digital Entertainment have also seen growth.

Over at Columbia TriStar TV, the division recently brought in a new management team and bolstered its roster of production deals. In addition, Columbia TriStar TV Distribution’s cable production business is growing; many of those projects were initially developed on the network side.

And the studio’s primetime performance this fall is no worse than anyone else’s — harboring a mix of modest successes (“The Guardian,” “King of Queens”) and misses (“What About Joan,” “Pasadena”).

But that track record doesn’t equal a profitable division. CTTV’s overall deals and large exec structure needs one or two grand slams to support it, not just a couple of base hits.

That’s because studios such as Columbia TriStar that are not aligned with a broadcaster ususally must give up at least half of their backend if they hope to land a primetime slot; with “King of Queens,” Sony gave up two-thirds (to CBS, Procter & Gamble and NBC).

The fact that Sony’s cable business has grown by utilizing network division development only proves that the primetime door is no longer open to everyone, Stringer says.

Stringer also notes that most of TV’s recent megahits (“Survivor,” “Millionaire”) have not come from the traditional world of network drama and comedy series but rather from local or foreign reality TV producers.

If Sony were to re-enter the network business, it would have to be through very different means, such as nonscripted series. Stringer calls it “guerilla theater.”

“We’re not walking away from primetime,” Stringer says. “If network TV gets together and figures out how we can do something together, I’m back in it.”

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