Cablers in no rush to fill top exex spot

Original p'gramming enjoying newfound popularity

At a time when original programming is becoming more crucial to the cable biz, several top jobs at cablers have been left vacant — in some cases for months.

Key programming positions have been open at Lifetime since January, VH1 since March and Comedy Central since April. Key shakeups or exits also have occurred in the last year at Turner, Discovery and E!

None of these nets is flying blind.

In Lifetime’s case, senior programming veep Kelly Abugov has stepped up after Dawn Ostroff left for UPN. Abugov pushed forward on a replacement for “Any Day Now,” which ended its four-year run this spring.

At Comedy Central, exec veep-general manager Bill Hilary calls the shots, while at VH1, exec veep/G.M. Christina Norman and MTV Music Networks prexy Judy McGrath are formulating programming strategy together for now. VH1’s Fred Graver remains exec veep of programming and production. Meanwhile, original programming on basic cable is enjoying a newfound popularity.

“The Osbournes” is the most-watched show in MTV’s history; “The Shield” has put FX Networks firmly on the map; and such telepics as Lifetime’s “We Were the Mulvaneys” and TBS’ “Disappearance” have provided ratings boons to their networks.

With success comes pressure to continue hitting home runs. Thus, cable programming gigs are more crucial and more demanding than ever.

“A lot of these organizations are giving much deeper thought to finding the programming exec not just of the present but who can take them into the future,” says Brad Marks, chairman-CEO of Los Angeles-based executive search firm Brad Marks Intl.

“They can ill-afford to make mistakes. There’s too much at stake,” he adds.

Basic cable employs a dual revenue stream model, collecting fees from operators to carry their networks and deriving ad dollars based largely on ratings.

Since many cable networks have reached maximum penetration, future growth in revenues will depend more on ad dollars — and these in turn depend on ratings.

The plethora of fully distributed nets also has resulted in fiercer competition, which makes the task of getting shows to break through that much more challenging.

Expansion in cable also will continue to come with the development of digital channels and VOD opportunities.

So not surprisingly, many networks are looking for execs who not only can produce a show well, but who can do so with an understanding of how to position that show for exploitation in other venues and on other platforms.

“It used to be a much easier task to find someone to head up programming,” Marks adds. “Today you need an executive with vision, creativity, strategic orientation, marketing expertise. All of those disciplines are necessary and not so easy to find.”

Still, the uber-programmer is not completely elusive, Marks insists.

“Those people are there,” he says. “Very frankly, many of these companies are starting to recognize they’re going to have to open up that universe of opportunity to include people with much broader experience than they have in the past.”

In other words, the industry very well may tap an exec who has made a star out of a Big Mac or one who hails from outside the U.S. Marks offers the example of Lifetime topper Carole Black, who several years ago came to entertainment from a successful consumer packaging business, as precedent for non-traditional execs making the Hollywood leap.

“The good old days of hiring your family member or best friend are gone,” Marks says.