Small screen hits the big time

An old golf axiom is that you “drive for the show and putt for the dough,” and the same dynamic increasingly appears true in Hollywood’s top echelons. Only in this case, the rule is that you get into movies for the show, and TV if you want to run the business.

Robert Iger’s promotion to become CEO of Disney this fall, coupled with the recent elevation of Howard Stringer at Sony, marks the beginning of a significant changing of the guard. And almost without exception, those poised to occupy the media’s thrones cut their teeth in TV.

This might not sound like big news when you consider that Barry Diller and the fellow Iger’s replacing, Michael Eisner, learned the ropes at ABC. Yet given that “Hollywood” almost invariably connotes movies and the second-class treatment television sometimes receives, the current slate of contenders is surely notable.

So, too, is the fact that the entities these execs will run have expanded dramatically since Eisner’s tenure began two decades ago. Thanks to consolidation, Iger and Stringer take the helm of sprawling enterprises involved in so many businesses that their employee roster has the heft of a Manhattan phone book.

Besides Iger, the ABC veteran, and Stringer, a CBS alum, NBC’s Bob Wright now gets to apply General Electric’s renowned management techniques to Universal.

Then there’s Viacom’s announcement about possibly splitting the company, positioning co-chief operating officers Tom Freston and Leslie Moonves — who both made their bones in TV — that much closer to being lead dogs, though what their respective packs would look like remains foggy.

News Corp. counterpart Peter Chernin oversaw the Fox network, and Jeff Bewkes ran HBO before Time Warner’s movie and cable business came under his aegis. Even Lachlan Murdoch has been placed in charge of Fox’s TV station group as dad Rupert prepares him, potentially, to take over the family store.

Television execs aren’t really surprised by this development. Their sphere has always possessed more moving parts than the feature side and is often a studio’s main profit center. Moreover, TV operates at a faster pace and requires additional levels of diplomacy in courting (or fending off) a wider array of constituencies, from affiliates and cable operators to advertisers and advocacy groups.

Nevertheless, even TV people still harbor a sense of awe toward their movie brethren and especially its stars. I distinctly remember having breakfast at the oh-so-blase Four Seasons Hotel when Sean Connery sauntered in and brought conversation to an abrupt halt. It’s hard to imagine any TV personality triggering quite the same response in that room.

Writer-novelist Charlie Hauck summed it up when I asked a group of TV scribes why their work seldom generates the same level or critical analysis or prestige as film, which is more of a director’s medium. “Movies are bigger,” he said matter of factly. “They win.”

Perhaps, though, even those lines are blurring. Thanks to the DVD market, more movies are now viewed for the first time on TV, while home-theater systems have ballooned screens to approximate a theatrical experience, albeit minus the parking costs.

A key moment in Iger’s early days at ABC Entertainment testifies to the importance of separating sizzle from the steak. Director David Lynch’s avant-garde drama “Twin Peaks” caused an enormous sensation but quickly fizzled, whereas “America’s Funniest Home Videos” — which premiered around the same time — is still peeling off dollar bills like a drunk at a strip club.

The lesson is that in today’s super-sized media, size doesn’t matter in quite the way it once did. And as any golfer can tell you, having a good short game will not only land you on the green but also keep you in it.

Full-spin Zone? Frank Rich frequently ridicules Bill O’Reilly’s repetition of the term “no-spin zone,” but the New York Times appeared to do a bit of spinning itself regarding the relocation of Rich’s column from Arts and Leisure to the paper’s expanding opinion section next month.

More than a few conservative watchdogs and even media observers such as myself have cited the incongruity of Rich’s political and vehemently anti-Bush administration culture column occupying prime real estate in the arts section, and the Times deserves kudos for finding him a more appropriate home.

In commenting about the shift to the New York Observer, however, there was no acknowledgement from Rich or his bosses that such concerns might have played any part in the move. In the process, they demonstrated that when laundry time rolls around, it’s not just O’Reilly who knows a little something about the spin cycle.

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