At a time of seismic change in the television business, the industry cries out for the kind of elevated discourse that can only be provided by … Dennis Miller?That’s right, last week the Hollywood Radio & Television Society brought together a distinguished panel of programming chiefs from cable networks, then used them as props for a lunchtime episode of “Dennis Miller.” It’s part of a peculiar trend, in which execs are deemed so risk-averse that public forums have become elaborate stage shows, moderated by comics like Miller or Jimmy Kimmel to ensure the laughs stay on high and the level of debate barely flickers. The HRTS has gone a bit haywire in this regard, dressing up its sessions with everything but substance. Take the recent event at which NBC News anchor Brian Williams faced a hard-hitting interview by his boss, NBC TV Group czar Jeff Zucker. Be sure and check this space next week, when Variety editor Peter Bart grills me. To his credit, Miller delivered several amusing lines, but he wasn’t about to let thoughtful conversation get in the way of good shtick. He persisted, for example, in referring to Showtime prexy Bob Greenblatt as “Greenie,” riffed on the Michael Jackson trial and indulged in anecdotes about watching TV with his kids. There’s nothing wrong with having fun, of course, but frankly, transforming TV execs into foils for a standup act is never going to be that entertaining, so let’s either have an intelligent gabfest or dispense with the pretense, ditch the suits and go directly to the comedy. Nor was it that long ago that the HRTS’ annual roundtable of network presidents — known as a “newsmaker” luncheon, by the way — was actually deemed newsworthy, if only to watch Leslie Moonves restrain himself from throttling Warren Littlefield as they sparred about the new season. Part of this shift has to do with added layers at studio/network congloms, placing those execs thrust into the hot seat in the awkward position of representing not just themselves but sprawling publicly traded companies. Nor does it help that we live in an era of “gotcha!” journalism, in which reporters and interest groups are conditioned to pounce on the smallest lapse or verbal gaffe. What’s clear, though, is that as the TV business undergoes a radical makeover — buffeted by new technology and fickle audience loyalties — issues are in flux and careers at stake. As a consequence, there’s a hunger for information, even if that’s just the best-guess estimates of smart people in significant decisionmaking capacities. Moreover, a freewheeling exchange about such matters should be as messy and unfiltered as the democratic process, as opposed to these fearful, stage-managed productions. For a demonstration of the former, look no further than Sunday’s Caucus for Television Producers, Writers & Directors dinner. Granted, writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd might have droned on somewhat behind the podium, but there was meat in his impassioned rant, from decrying runaway production to safeguarding freedom of expression as “the essence of the American message.” By contrast, the newfound emphasis on showbiz flair infested even the Museum of Television & Radio’s annual Paley Festival, which sought out celebrities such as Carrie Fisher and Camryn Manheim to emcee tributes to “Desperate Housewives” and “The L Word,” respectively. (Organizers did enlist a few lower-wattage types, which included asking me to preside over the “Deadwood” showcase, presumably because Simon Cowell wasn’t available and Gene Autry is deceased.) Perhaps this is to be expected from a society that has plunged headfirst into “infotainment,” bleaching away true news value and tailoring every presentation to the shortest of attention spans. Small wonder industry discussions tilt toward the predigested security of “The Tonight Show,” not “Nightline.” There was a time, however, when reporters came away from such gatherings eager to convey what was said, and not with a blank notepad other than a scribbled throwaway joke about Michael Jackson’s favorite show, “SpongeBob NoPants.” So while this may be a minority opinion, here’s a proposal for talking heads who actually have something to say, and when the mood strikes for Miller’s comedy stylings, we promise to CNBC-ya real soon. Until then, to quote that noted philosopher Stevie Wonder, let’s get serious.
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