Sony unplugs TV

Col TriStar TV dismantles primetime unit

Sony has officially put into motion the dismantling of Columbia TriStar Television, 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.

Steve Mosko, the 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.

Virtually all of Columbia TriStar Television’s exec team — including Grossi, Mazza and a slew of new development execs hired over the last few months — will exit the company. Many will be gone within the next few weeks.

A few, such as programming exec VP Jeanie Bradley and those who work in Col TriStar’s current programming department, could stay on until the end of the season or longer.

Sony Pictures Entertainment chief operating officer-prexy Mel Harris announced the restructuring Thursday, a week after word leaked out that Sony was planning a massive scaling back of its primetime operations (Daily Variety, Oct. 17). On Oct. 19, Sony Corp. of America topper Howard Stringer told Daily Variety he was through with the traditional network biz because “it doesn’t make sense any more.”

Harris said the Internet and ad revenue boom of the 1990s helped mask the inherent flaws in the traditional net-studio model. The slowing economy and the events of Sept. 11 hastened its demise, at least for Sony.

“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 said. “That’s a model we’re not going forward with.”

Harris said Mosko has “had great success running our syndication and cable division, proving that you can provide programming that is both popular and profitable without incurring enormous financial risk. We’ll be following the same targeted approach for the broadcast networks.”

Harris and Mosko said 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,” “Family Law” and “The Guardian.”

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

Mosko said CTDT would produce for primetime “if we see a way a show makes sense.” As an example, he pointed to “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” — a reality skein developed for TBS that snagged a window on the WB when the latter had a last-minute hole to fill.

That’s hardly the same thing as developing big-budget comedies and dramas for networks, however. As a result, it’s expected that Sony will seek to shed itself of many of the large, costly overall deals it has in place — either by selling them to another web or studio, or by settling out.

Mosko wouldn’t discuss specifics about how Sony plans to handle all of its various commitments. “We’re taking steps to serve the interests of all involved,” he said.

Honoring all deals

Industry experts said Sony would likely settle out of some deals, pay off others and sell those that make sense. Several agents said Sony reps have stated clearly that the company intends to honor all its deals, one way or another.

Gavin Polone, head of CTTV-based Pariah Prods., said the entire situation at Sony clearly “hurts” his company. While he’s had no official talks with Sony execs, he believes Pariah will ultimately have to find a new home.

“When we did the deal with them, we presupposed they were a television company,” he said. “It seems to me like we’re not going to be there anymore.”

John Landgraf, whose Jersey TV just inked a lucrative three-year deal with CTTV, said he was saddened by the company’s demise — but uncertain about how Sony plans to handle his deal.

“Some really good people lost their job today,” he said. “Right now we’re waiting for Columbia TriStar to come to us with a proposal for how they want to settle this situation.”

Timing questioned

Some in the industry questioned the timing of Sony’s move, coming just as CTTV’s development team is wrapping a successful development season that saw the sale of more than 50 projects. Had Sony waited a few more months, many of those projects — converted from script orders to pilots — would be much more valuable.

What’s more, Mazza, who joined CTTV a year ago this week, had just finished recruiting a whole new team of development and current execs, including development exec VP Steve Stark, drama senior veep Jennifer Nicholson Salke and comedy senior veep Harvey Myman.

Harris said the rapidly changing economic picture of the last six months made it imperative that Sony act now. “By early September, it was very apparent we were going to be facing a very different … market,” he said.

As for Grossi and Mazza, Harris said that in a way, the two were victims of their own success.

“Len and Tom did a marvelous job of bringing together talent and execs to put together the slate (for next season),” he said. “It is just one of the ironic truths that when you’re successful with your programming, you end up spending a great deal upfront to get to the backend. The better off you are, the worst off you are (short-term).”

In his interview with Daily Variety, Stringer said Sony’s decision to largely abandon primetime is the product of an industry that has refused to change despite warnings over the past few years that the traditional production model doesn’t work.

Bidding up prices

“If business had been rational, there would still be room for everybody,” Stringer said. “But every time we reached a point of rationality, another company came along to bid up prices.”

CTTV’s demise is partially attributable to the death of rules that prohibited nets from participating in the off-net profits of primetime series. As a result, indie studios without a network partner, such as Sony, have struggled to land the best timeslots on network skeds as webs instead favor their own inhouse production arms.

Some have also questioned CTTV’s big-spending ways over the past few years, a strategy described by many as “throw it all against the wall and see what sticks.” Critics believe a boutique approach would’ve served the studio better, allowing it to maximize profits from a few select projects.

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