Look back in angst

Tome puts webheads under microscope

For image-obsessed Hollywood execs, passing on a project can sometimes be more dangerous than giving it a greenlight.

Critics of Michael Eisner never let the former Disney topper forget that the Mouse House bailed on “CSI,” giving up hundreds of millions in profit as a result. Likewise, the Bob Daly-Terry Semel regime at Warner Bros. dumped “Home Alone” because it became too expensive, only to watch Fox launch a monster franchise.

Now, just as networks are preparing to decide which pilots will live and die, a book byBill Carter, who reports on the TV industry for the New York Times, promises to up the angst level on Broadcast Row by detailing how many of today’s biggest hits suffered multiple rejections before finding their way onto the small screen.

Dubbed “Desperate Networks,” the tome is filled with a slew of “nobody knows anything” revelations about TV’s development process. While many of the stories have been told before — Disney’s shortsighted rejection of “CSI,” Elisabeth Murdoch’s lobbying for “American Idol” — the book serves up a slew of juicy details and character portraits destined to be buzzed about from Burbank to Black Rock.

Among the highlights:

  •  NBC U topper Bob Wright investigating why NBC didn’t land “Desperate Housewives.” At one point, Wright even calls creator Marc Cherry.n In a subtle dig at Bob Iger, the producers of “Lost” recruited ousted ABC boss Lloyd Braun to supply the voiceover at the start of each episode that says “previously on ‘Lost.’ ”

  •  Hollywood’s animus toward NBC chief Jeff Zucker, including a slam from former Fox chief Gail Berman. “You gotta be able to say something about your tenure before you sit in front of people and say I’m the man, I’m the man,” Berman says, clearly referring to Zucker.

  •  Webheads’ explosive tempers: Carter writes about Zucker telling producer Ben Silverman to “get the fuck out of my office.” Moonves, feeling abandoned by a press rep during a contentious press gaggle, is seen screaming at his spokesperson, “Well, I hope you’re having a fucking nice conversation.”

  •  After then-Fox boss Sandy Grushow denounces reality shows by saying he’d rather “fail with quality than succeed with trash,” Fox reality chief Mike Darnell bites back hard: “Of course, Sandy found it very easy to fail with quality,” he dishes.

Given that it’s geared to the widest possible audience, it’s only logical “Desperate Networks” focuses mainly on the convoluted, creativity-stifling process of how shows become hits. TV viewers who’ve wondered why so many crappy shows get on the air now have an answer.

But greenlighting good shows is only half the battle.

Sure, it’s important for development execs to realize gold when they’ve got it. And, as Carter notes, smart TV execs know it’s vital to always take out “schmuck insurance” — i.e., covering your ass to make sure you’re not blamed if something you reject works out.

Yet TV history is filled with examples of strong ideas, some of them brilliantly executed, that end up failures due to bad marketing, tough timeslots or simply being on the wrong network.

Before he scored with “The West Wing,” for example, Aaron Sorkin created the critically admired “SportsNight” for ABC. Skein would have been perfect for NBC’s “Must-See TV” comedy block, but it wasn’t a good fit with ABC’s collection of blue-collar laffers — and lasted less than two seasons.

Carter repeatedly gives former ABC chief Lloyd Braun credit for being an early, avid supporter of “Lost” and casts current Alphabet entertainment boss Steve McPherson as something of a foe of the project. The underlying take-away: Bob Iger fired the guy who gave ABC one of its biggest hits in years.

McPherson has never made a secret of the fact he had concerns over the ever-escalating costs of the “Lost” pilot, or that he was worried about early plans to kill off Matthew Fox’s character right off the bat.

But there’s no denying that McPherson ultimately was the man who put “Lost” on the air. He also devoted nearly half of the net’s fall 2004 marketing budget to hyping the show, something unheard of in network circles at the time.

Indeed, as much as Braun deserves accolades for his role in “Lost,” there’s a strong case to be made that the show might not have become the monster hit it is today had he stayed with the network. After all, another J.J. Abrams-created show, “Alias,” never approached the ratings achieved by “Lost,” despite having a much more conventional, TV-friendly premise.

There’s also no getting around the fact that, unlike a movie, long-term success in TV is about more than picking up great source material. Movies hit or miss after one at-bat, while TV shows that start strongly can quickly fizzle (ask the producers of “Joey”).

Bottom line? Saying “yes” or “no” to the right projects is important, but it’s hardly the only measure of success for execs or networks.

“There’s no great executive who hasn’t passed on something,” says one network insider who’s read Carter’s book. “It’s part of the game. You’re saying ‘no’ 98% of the time.”