CEOs get baptized by TV fire

Top jobs filled by network vets

So far, the Writers Guild strike has dealt primarily with issues that disrupt the TV industry, as the movie business — which operates on a different schedule — stockpiled enough scripts to avoid immediately feeling the walkout’s effects.

In that respect, there’s a certain logic to recent management changes at the studios, as what amounts to a made-for-TV strike runs into a new crop of culled-from-TV studio chiefs.

How television and its content will adapt to new media sits at the heart of this dispute, and the focus on TV notably parallels the ascension of CEOs who cut their teeth in that arena. Most of these execs rose to their current position in the past three years, but began in TV jobs setting them on that path during a window adjacent to the previous writers strike in 1988.

The recent elevation of Jeffrey Bewkes to become Time Warner’s CEO in January — following Jeff Zucker’s anointment as CEO of NBC Universal earlier this year — continues a gradual sweep of TV luminaries into top studio posts. Bewkes started as HBO’s prexy-chief operating officer in 1991, while Zucker captured the attention of GE brass after being tapped as the “Today” show’s wunderkind producer in 1992.

They join Howard Stringer — the one-time head of CBS News promoted to head the network’s broadcast group in ’88, who now oversees all of Sony Corp. — and the troika of Disney’s Bob Iger, CBS’ Leslie Moonves and News Corp.’s Peter Chernin, who became presidents of ABC Entertainment, Lorimar TV and Fox Entertainment, respectively, in 1989.

Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer is another contemporary of that group, while Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey was principally known for TV projects such as “The Sopranos” before segueing from his production and management firm to the movie studio.

These are hardly the first former TV execs to advance within studio hierarchies (Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Bob Daly and the late Brandon Tartikoff come to mind), but the breadth of the present makeup is enough to give an observer pause — wondering if this trend is happenstance or, more likely, tacit recognition of how the sheer pace of the business itself is evolving.

“When you run a network it is an unbelievably great training ground for running a studio,” says Daly, who led CBS prior to his long and successful stint overseeing Warner Bros., citing the blend of business and creative concerns that TV encompasses.

Perhaps foremost, the entertainment industry moves and changes more rapidly than ever and must address an expanding roster of constituencies. Compare that to network chiefs juggling the demands of talent, affiliates, advertisers and advocacy groups. During his stint at “Today,” Zucker used to boast about making hundreds of decisions in each day’s program, often at a moment’s notice.

These CEOs weaned in television have enjoyed a front-row seat for the shifting delivery of video content, whereas the fundamentals of the movie business — albeit with new challenges and wrinkles, such as digital piracy — have generally remained more stable.

This isn’t to suggest that TV has superseded movies on Hollywood’s pecking order. As Daly notes, there is a level of romance surrounding movies and movie stars — who still seem to occupy a place on Mt. Olympus — separating them from TV personalities, who feel more familiar because they come into the viewer’s home week after week.

Nevertheless, studios are keenly aware of TV’s importance from a business perspective. Top movie stars might earn $20 million or $25 million a picture, but their compensation is often dwarfed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil McGraw and Jerry Seinfeld, who earn millions walking to the mailbox. Just as Jerry Bruckheimer expanded into TV with the “CSI” franchise and other hits, fellow blockbuster producer Joel Silver once quipped that while he got into movies to make art, TV success was the faster route if your goal is to buy art.

Although TV’s significance has been recognized for some time, Norman Horowitz, a veteran distribution exec, suggests the attitude is clearly different from the days when he ran Columbia’s syndication unit in the 1970s. While his division prepared to market “Barney Miller” reruns — and generate $100 million to $150 million in profit from TV stations — the company’s focus was entirely devoted to the release of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

“It has transformed into a business where the driver is television,” Horowitz says. “Thirty years ago, nobody gave a shit about television because it was all about movies.”

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