SAY WHAT YOU WILL about George W. Bush’s presidency, but he’d make a lousy network executive.
After a rebuke from voters in November’s midterm elections, Bush embarked on a “listening tour” regarding Iraq policy, then postponed a planned pre-Christmas announcement into next year. What really chafes at administration critics, though, is his reluctance to acknowledge missteps — as he grudgingly did during a Dec. 20 press conference — or concede that certain strategies haven’t worked.
Running a network, by contrast, is a process of constant adjustment and reevaluation, as the flurry of scheduling changes coming in January — reshaping primetime lineups at even those broadcast networks enjoying a measure of success — will attest.
Indeed, as much as the D.C. establishment loves to dismiss Hollywood as the Shallow Home of the Airhead, administrations present and future could learn a thing or two from how TV’s programming chiefs constantly redeploy forces and seldom enjoy the luxury of resting on their laurels.
In television, failure is a constant handmaiden, which means change is not only inevitable but generally can’t be deferred to run around soaking in expert advice. (Fortunately, some is offered unsolicited, in helpful — and reasonably priced! — journals such as this one.)
TV’s chief executives buttress their credibility by bluntly admitting failure, even if it occasionally falls to a deputy (pity the poor head of scheduling) to do so. Fox’s Peter Liguori recently stated that the net’s fall shows simply weren’t good enough, and it’s hard to picture ABC’s Steve McPherson, NBC’s Kevin Reilly or CBS’ Nina Tassler trying to get away with a mealy-mouthed response like, “We’re not winning, we’re not losing,” which, given Bush’s past pronouncements, was enough of a concession to command headlines.
In some cases, a network will toss out a flawed scheme and undertake a dramatic overhaul, as News Corp. might have to do with its struggling MyNetworkTV, which thus far has been AlmostNobody’sNetworkTV. More often, strategies are gradually revised on the fly, with a surprise hit like “Deal or No Deal” guiding what in political vernacular would be dubbed “a new way forward.”
Because network execs understand that it’s impossible to effectively fight multiple battles at once, they are adept at picking selected fronts where there’s a reasonable opportunity for progress — think ABC’s Thursday-night invasion led by “Grey’s Anatomy” — with the goal of establishing beachheads and building blocks that can be reassigned later.
Anticipating the unexpected, TV officials prepare contingency plans, but always with the realization that a planned January premiere might need to be pushed back or forward depending on circumstances on the ground. And when they do find themselves facing a lost cause — a la going up against “American Idol” — they’re smart enough to make the best of a bad situation and mitigate the damage.
Running a network requires diplomatically handling squabbling factions and recognizing when you are in the driver’s seat (ordering more episodes of a ratings-challenged show like “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” say, making it feasible to extract budget concessions) and when the other side holds all the cards (as in renewals of “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “Friends”). And yes, that can involve talking to enemies, though we’ll leave it to those with first-hand experience to decide whether analogies between dealing with certain agents and producers or Syria and Iran are over the top or roughly on target.
Since they don’t have rigidly fixed terms, network execs operate in a system more akin to England’s parliamentary approach, where they are in essence constantly running for office. On the plus side, when forced to depart prematurely, they invariably leave with lovely (and contractually demanded) parting gifts.
Finally, there’s the old standard of demonstrating that a network gets the message things are FUBAR by implementing key personnel changes. Usually, the chief does so by firing someone lower on the totem pole — the head of drama development, perhaps, just to shake up the chemistry.
On that score, at least, Bush might be ready for his Hollywood close-up. Just ask Donald Rumsfeld.