Change ain’t easy for Hollywood

It takes solid footing to innovate showbiz

Both Hollywood and Washington in recent months have come face to face with a cruel reality — namely, that it’s easier to talk abstractly about change than to chart a clearly defined course and achieve it.

The Obama administration, which ran on the promise of “hope” and “change,” has left some supporters grumbling about its progress. On the other coast, NBC has similarly demonstrated the limits of issuing sweeping pronouncements. The network not only retreated from its 4-month-old experiment shifting Jay Leno to primetime, it also has backed away from other statements about dramatically altering the traditional TV model.

There’s no denying that the business is undergoing wrenching changes — but history suggests that breakthroughs dictate network and studio strategies, not the other way around.

In the real world, innovation — coupled with good timing and a few breaks — can bring success. In Hollywood, paradoxically, success is usually essential to bringing about innovation. It’s far more difficult to achieve what NBC officials sought to do: Identify a need for change and then bend the world to fit that mold.

A year ago, as the network landed yet again in the ratings cellar, and with Leno’s fate at the network up in the air, execs at NBC declared that it was time for nothing less than an overhaul of primetime entertainment. Aside from the five-nights-a-week live Leno show, the network threw out rules on the annual upfront presentations and announced with a flourish that it was changing its development and scheduling processes.

Throughout Hollywood, there are plenty of recent examples of showbiz adapting its practices after stumbling upon hits.

Networks knew dramas were becoming more expensive to produce, but it wasn’t until “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Survivor” became unexpectedly huge hits in the U.S. that programmers saw just how fertile a genre awaited them in the unscripted realm.

The movie studios have long harbored similar concerns about escalating budgets, but it took “Paranormal Activity” — a mini-thriller that has surprisingly grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. — to inspire Paramount to launch a division devoted to “micro-budget” movies that cost less than $100,000. Of course, if catching lightning in a bottle were that simple, there would have been dozens of megahits produced on a shoestring in the decade since “The Blair Witch Project,” but never mind.

Granted, studios can err by overreacting in their zeal to replicate success — assuming that one hit comicbook movie or crime procedural indicates boundless demand for more of the same. Still, amid a landscape characterized by fickle tastes and fast-shifting technology, it appears impossible to ordain change on a timetable you’ve created.

Network scheduling has also evolved in response to audience tastes. Fox and ABC’s decision to withhold “24” and “Lost,” respectively, until midseason and run those serialized programs uninterrupted coalesced only after they became popular — and not incidentally, the DVD and international markets for these programs provided secondary revenue streams that allow the networks to justify steep license fees for a fresher single telecast of each episode, undiluted by low-rated reruns. In this context, the demise of stripping Leno five nights in primetime was merely the latest in a series of initiatives by NBC meant to rewrite the TV rulebook, but which have been subsequently unwound.

We might have been too early on this one,” NBC Universal TV Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin acknowledged at the TV Critics Assn. tour last week, by way of explaining the about-face on Leno.

But that’s just part of the backpedaling the network has done since NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker and former NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman begin talking about the need to revamp broadcast television.

In addition to the 10 p.m. switch, Gaspin announced that the network would return to a traditional upfront presentation to advertisers, eliminating its so-called “in-front” event introduced before his appointment, which broke from decades of tradition.

A pre-Leno mandate that NBC would schedule only reality TV and other inexpensive programs at 8 p.m. has long since been jettisoned. So too was a stated desire to trim costs by leaping directly to series production with scripts and forgoing the pilot process.

All the broadcast networks, moreover, remain largely wedded to a TV season that begins with a flurry of premieres in mid-September, despite various attempts to proclaim the concept dead amid the evolution of year-round programming.

Other executives have generally resisted the temptation to publicly gloat at NBC’s expense, but they did express vindication in seeing the Peacock network concede that outlining a plan to conduct business differently is not the same thing as effectively executing one.

I think ultimately there is no substitute for developing great shows,” CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler told the assembled press tour critics, contemplating the lessons from NBC’s experience.

Indeed, rivals have long maintained that the change NBC heralded with its Leno gambit had as much to do with necessity as design — driven by a combination of primetime failures and the understandable desire not to lose a top latenight star to a competitor.

During his session with critics, ABC Entertainment chief Stephen McPherson suggested that scrapping Leno in primetime marked a repudiation of “managing for margins” — another Zucker-Silverman construct, which downplayed overall ratings and competitive standing in favor of measuring the profits associated with each individual program.

If we start to make it just about the business … it’s bad for everybody,” McPherson said, adding that the fallout from placing Leno at 10 p.m. and temporarily sidelining scripted dramas “really has put the emphasis back on great creative.”

Promoting a new show that he’s producing, Jerry Seinfeld — a comic associated with much better days at NBC — applauded the network for taking a chance on a switch he characterized as “the right idea at the wrong time.”

Yet if history is any judge, that formula doesn’t solve problems. In fact, the only certainty regarding attempts to force poorly timed changes is that when the smoke clears, whoever’s left to clean up the mess will probably need to make another round of changes.

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