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Keeping current?

Key executive position vanishing at networks

Already TV’s most underrated players, current programming execs are now on the chopping block.

The industry has traditionally run hot and cold on current departments — the execs that oversee the ongoing health and production of series already on the air.

Lately, cost-cutting has forced programmers to once again reassess the need for current teams, as penny-pinching congloms move in to reduce staff. 

When ABC recently shuffled its network and studio operations, jobs devoted to current programming were axed altogether — including current department topper Kim Rozenfeld, who is moving into a production deal at Disney. 

Ditto at NBC, where the network dismantled its current department in December after NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios merged their programming teams. Longtime current exec VP Ted Frank was among the top-level execs let go in what was deemed around the Peacock as “Black Monday.”

But in dumping their current departments, nets also run the risk of neglecting their most important investments, particularly shows that aren’t huge hits and need a little push to become long-term assets. And nets like NBC that have had trouble developing a new crop of hits would probably benefit from execs whose only job is sustaining the life of a series.

Primetime series usually have a couple of current execs onboard (from both the studio and the network), most of whom are assigned several shows to oversee at once. They’re often working with showrunners in plotting out storylines, coming up with stunt casting and making sure critical episodes run at certain times of the year.

“Ongoing shows are the bread and butter of this studio,” says 20th Century Fox TV chairman Dana Walden. ” ’24,’ ‘Family Guy,’ ‘Bones,’ the flagship franchises of this company are critically important. And their creative health is mandatory for the health of this company. It’s a no-brainer to maintain a group of executives whose focus is on current. … This is our responsibility.”

In discussing the relevancy of current programming execs, Walden points to CBS comedy “How I Met Your Mother,” which hit its fourth season last year, the critical juncture where a show is poised to be sold into off-net syndication.

“The current and casting area at the studio played such a pivotal role that the show was at its very best in our most important year,” Walden says. “The execs on the current team at the studio, as well as casting executives, played an important role in bringing on Britney Spears and in bringing on Sarah Chalke.”

One network entertainment prexy says current execs are key to managing which stories are appearing on their network, as well as coordinating with other departments in making sure the shows’ messages are properly conveyed via publicity, online, marketing and even ad sales.

“We look at current execs as project managers,” the exec says. “It’s the actual day-to-day management of interfacing with the network and studio. There are a lot of ancillary businesses associated with each show.”

That includes coordinating any brand integration on series, as well as coordinating between network shows to ensure that similar storylines don’t wind up airing at the same time.

But for all the benefits of current programming, the idea of dumping the department isn’t without merit. Instead of shoving a series off to a new set of execs once it hits the air, there’s a benefit to keeping development execs involved in the current programming operations of shows they had earlier shepherded through.

For one thing, the show’s producers are already comfortable with that exec — they went through the pilot season trenches together, after all — and the exec is already very familiar with how the show operates.

That’s why this is not the first time networks and studios have looked to dump their current departments.

That was the case in the 1990s, when several programmers experimented with a “team system.” Under that setup, execs remained in charge of current on the shows they had just developed.

But in most of those cases, the nets and studios eventually reinstated a current department. In the end, it’s rough for development execs — who are knee-deep in scripts, casting and production for most of the year — to try to carve out some time to focus on current shows that seem to be humming along nicely. 

For some execs, current programming duties also aren’t nearly as sexy or exciting as development, and as a result, nets and studios frequently considered the gig as expendable.

Walden points out that it’s much easier to spot reward in the development side. If a show gets ordered, then that executive was successful.

“The difference between the two is salesmanship,” Walden says. “The development exec needs a strong sense of sales and how to package in order to go into the marketplace and sell a show. In current, the pressure is more on having incredible taste and providing new ideas for writers and directors. You need someone who can evaluate and help improve material.”

A current exec also needs to have a more even temperament, as dealing with showrunners on a hit series can be quite different from dealing with a producer who’s still trying to get his or her show on the air.

In some ways, the current department is boot camp for execs who aspire to eventually run a network or studio. Most of TV’s top execs spent time earlier in their careers on the current side.

“They’re the unsung heroes,” Walden says.

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