Net gives NBC reprieve as prez exits

Almost five years after joining Paxson Communications to help launch a broadcast network, Jeff Sagansky is ankling his job as CEO-prexy of the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based company.

Separately on Monday, Paxson said it will give NBC almost four extra months to decide whether to sell its $415 million stake back to Paxson. NBC now has until April 4 to decide whether to sell its 32% stake prior to another window of opportunity in 2004.

By segueing into a vice chairman post, Sagansky will be able to maintain a watch on his substantial equity interest at Paxson while relinquishing daily chores.

Paxson founder-chairman Lowell “Bud” Paxson will assume the title of CEO. Dean Goodman, prexy at Paxson’s Pax TV broadcast weblet, will take on the added titles of Paxson prexy and chief operating officer, officials said.

“We’ve been a really good operational infrastructure down here, and I’m going to keep consulting on a nonexclusive basis,” Sagansky said.

In the cards

There have been rumors for months that Sagansky was thinking of ankling, and Bud Paxson acknowledged that Sagansky had previously asked to step down as CEO to allow him to spend more time with his family in New York, where the company also maintains offices. But the chairman said he asked his chief to stay on a while longer while Paxson tended to a couple of medical procedures.

Now, the timing is right to disengage, Sagansky said. He said the company has 87% U.S. household coverage through its mix of broadcast, cable and satellite distribution, and that’s expected to climb to 90% by the end of 2003.

But program ratings languish at Pax, despite increased levels of original programming in recent years. Ratings deteriorated when Pax curtailed reruns of popular off-network fare such as “Touched by an Angel” to make room for new shows.

Sagansky joined Paxson — initially as a programming consultant — in May 1998, just a few months before the launch of Pax TV. He’d ankled as co-prexy of Sony Pictures Entertainment in February of that year, and previously was prez of CBS Entertainment.

Sagansky said he doesn’t have any immediate outside projects, adding, “I’ll be thinking about that over the next month.”

Turning point

As for the the Paxson-Peacock relationship, things turned icy after NBC’s agreement to buy Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, which complicated the broadcast giant’s ability to successfully navigate various regulatory caps on broadcast holdings.

Paxson execs have expressed a desire to replace NBC as an ownership and programming partner, and just last week the company hired Bears Stearns to seek such suitors. But Peacock officials have suggested the regulatory environment could improve enough eventually to allow a longer-term relationship with Paxson.

“I don’t think either of us thinks there’s going to be a clear-cut path through any of this stuff any time soon,” Bud Paxson said Monday. “But we have the right to take them out (of) their investment.”

Execs declined to name potential replacements for NBC as a partner, but MGM has been mentioned as an interested party. A well-placed source said at least one unspecified company has already been in touch with Bear Stearns.

Bud Paxson emphasized there is no plan to sell off the company’s 64 broadcast properties in lieu of finding a new strategic partner.

The Paxson-NBC partnership also has failed on a creative level. Despite Sagansky’s best efforts, plans to repurpose a lion’s share of NBC-owned primetime series never got off the ground. For example, Pax initially announced plans to air second runs of NBC’s “Crossing Jordan,” but couldn’t work out a license fee. Pax also had hoped to air repeats of “NBC Nightly News” until Peacock affils balked.

Weak link

Shows that did make the transfer from NBC to Pax were mostly reality fare, such as “Weakest Link,” and telepics. Sagansky had hoped NBC’s laffer “Emeril” could be dually aired on Pax, but the sitcom proved short-lived. Scripted skein “Mysterious Ways” preemed on NBC but was produced mainly for Pax.

Today, there is no repurposed NBC programming on the weblet. Pax recently shut down its Hollywood production and promotion operation, with about 50 employees relocated to West Palm Beach, where original production continues.

Paxson’s recently sluggish shares gained modestly amid a bullish broader market Monday. The stock rose 6¢, or 2%, to $2.62.

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