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Meidel defects Diller

Studios USA prexy exits after topper cuts his duties

This time it’s for real: Greg Meidel will step down as chairman and CEO of Studios USA at the end of the month in the wake of Barry Diller’s $4.07 billion buyout of Universal’s domestic TV operations.

Meidel, who did a quick about-face after publicly announcing his resignation last November, said Thursday that his final decision was based largely on the fact that his responsibilities were scaled down once Diller’s USA Networks Inc. stunned showbiz with his surprise takeover of the Universal TV Group last October.

“The job I agreed to take (as U TV Group chairman) 2two and a half years ago is not the job I have now,” Meidel told Daily Variety. “I gave up a lot of components of my job description when we moved from Universal to USA Network, and in the end, I really wanted to seek some additional challenges. It’s hard not to catch the entrepreneurial bug when you’re around Barry.”

Meidel, who was named U’s senior TV exec in January 1996, said he had no immediate future plans beyond “taking the summer off.” Sources said Meidel was departing with a buyout package estimated in the $8 million to $10 million range.

Koplovitz walks first

Meidel’s adieu follows on the heels of Kay Koplovitz’s departure as chairman of the USA Network cabler. By most accounts, Koplovitz found herself in the same spot as Meidel, unsatisfied with a diminished role at the company cobbled together by the notoriously independent Diller.

Sources within the company say Diller has no plans to directly replace Meidel, and the chairman and CEO position had become “largely ceremonial” given Diller’s intent to play a hands-on role on the production side of his new company, they said.

Bob Fleming, formerly Studios USA’s exec VP and chief financial officer, has been upped to group president of Studios USA. Among the Studios USA execs now reporting to Fleming, who was brought to U by Meidel, are network TV prexy Ken Solomon; syndication prexy Steve Rosenberg, who will now oversee both program development and sales; and longform programming prez Barbara Fisher.

Because Fleming’s experience is in business and finance, rather than creative production or syndication sales, the promotion appears to leave wide open the possibility of a new executive coming in above him.

Diller wants originals

Some sources close to the situation, however, say Diller, chairman and CEO of USA Networks Inc., is planning to scale down the domestic production arm he inherited from Universal. Diller in particular wants to focus less on deficit financing network series and, instead, will spend more time producing original programming for his USA Network cabler and the budding USA Broadcasting station group.

“I have genuine respect for Greg Meidel,” Diller said in a statement. “While our corporate relationship was short-lived (which is utterly no reflection on his first rate executive ability), I am hopeful we will find a way to be associated in a future project.”

There had been speculation in recent weeks that Meidel and Diller were at odds over Meidel’s handling of the PR crises that engulfed Studios USA’s “Jerry Springer Show.” Sources say Meidel acted unilaterally in issuing press releases on the new anti-violence policy for the strip known best for its frequent slugfests.

“Diller wants an aggressive thinker, but not someone who acts independently,” one source said.

Negotiations painful

But Meidel and reps for Diller maintain that the two came to an agreement about Meidel’s resignation back in March. Sources noted that after his change of heart in November, Meidel’s contract negotiations dragged on for months, and a new pact was never completely closed.

Aside from their different personality styles, one source with ties to Diller said the tense on-again, off-again contract negotiation was actually one element that caused the relationship to sour between the two executives.

“At the end of the day, the negotiation process turned Barry off,” the source said. “Diller’s very anti-Hollywood. He doesn’t like people having car allowances and fringe benefits. That set the tone that (Meidel) was not the person for this lean alternative to the Hollywood machine.”

Meidel eventually agreed to stay on through the end of June to steer the Studios USA ship through the network’s fall sked setting process, the syndie upfront advertising sales and the May screenings for international buyers.

Meidel lost a huge chunk of his responsibility with the separation of U’s international and domestic TV operations. In the transition from Universal to Studios USA, Meidel also gave up oversight of such areas as animation and direct-to-video production.

Meidel praised

On Thursday, Universal Studios brass lauded Meidel’s two and a half-year tenure on the lot. Studio chairman Frank Biondi said that Meidel turned the TV division around from a $30 million annual loss to one that generated just under $130 million in cash flow this year.

Meidel spearheaded U’s aggressive push into the international marketplace, striking record-setting deals with German broadcast giant RTL, among others. He vastly expanded U’s syndie presence with the purchase of talkshow distrib Multimedia Entertainment in late 1996, as well as wooing host Maury Povich to U from the Paramount fold as of this fall.

However, network development lagged behind the other major studios, and the number of series on the fall schedule dropped to a new low of three this fall.

“Meidel was a bright, successful syndication salesman who was miscast over a studio production entity,” said one rival studio source.

Even if true, that may not have been a problem for Diller, though, given that he wants to be a marginal player in that business. Because of the direction in which Diller appears to be taking Studios USA, though, several Hollywood insiders are questioning whether Solomon will remain in his post for long.

Prior to joining U, Meidel spent four years as president of Fox’s Twentieth TV syndie arm. He got his start in the syndie sales biz at Paramount, joining the studio as regional division manager in 1979 and leaving in late 1991 was exec VP of sales.