Like much reporting about the entertainment industry, Bill Carter’s meticulous deconstruction of TV’s hit-making apparatus labors to be inclusive but doesn’t establish why anybody whose name isn’t in the index should remotely care. Although the New York Times reporter enjoys first-rate access to dealmakers, this detail-laden tome lacks the sort of juicy revelations that distinguished Carter’s earlier “The Late Shift,” and his contention that the 2004-05 season is a “watershed” that prompted a “seismic shift” in TV feels more like a marketing hook than a convincing premise. For a book obsessed with hits, score this one a miss.
Part of the problem simply reflects the difficulty in trying to capture a moving target like the TV biz in a long-lead-time format. Television moves so fast that distilling its “story” into book form invariably risks having elements rendered moot, and several references already seem dated.
Carter also overreaches by attempting to support the conceit that the year of “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” somehow transformed television, as opposed to being part of an ongoing (and still very much in progress) wave of convulsions.
What’s really missing, though, are the eye-catching moments that made “Late Shift” a must-read, such as Jay Leno hiding to eavesdrop on a discussion about his future with “The Tonight Show.” Instead, Carter essentially replicates what he excels at as a beat reporter, which is to synthesize news that has been out there in one place or another into a concise, well-reported package that — thanks to the Times’ agenda-setting status — appears minty fresh.
So it goes with Carter’s account of ABC’s woes under Disney; his extremely laudatory appraisal of the book’s star, Leslie Moonves, in turning CBS around and attempting to salvage power in the reshaped Viacom; and industry hostility toward Jeff Zucker, whose magic act keeping NBC on top eventually exhausted its smoke and mirrors — much to the delight of detractors who resented the media attention showered on him.
Of course, what Carter conveniently avoids is his own role in exalting Zucker in the pages of the Times. Indeed, for a time Zucker was quoted so frequently in Carter’s stories that cynical types wondered if the writer occupied a guest room in the NBC exec’s house.
Carter has done a respectable job fleshing out the book with mini-profiles, which peak in the portrait of “Housewives” creator Marc Cherry’s well-documented desperation before selling the ABC series. For the most part, however, these biographies slow and dull the narrative.
As a simple matter of style, the book also rather peculiarly alternates between identifying people by first and last names — so ABC’s Steve McPherson, say, will be “McPherson” on one reference and “Steve” the next.
Despite Carter’s thorough reporting, the vague concept behind “Desperate Networks” ultimately defeats him, resulting in little more than a curiosity for Hollywood bigwigs eager to see how well, or poorly, they fare under the microscope. By that measure, its publication hardly qualifies as an act of desperation, nor is there much inspiration here, but rather a catchy title in search of a book to go with it.