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TV brightens studio picture at Sony

As parent conglom struggles, film adjusts while TV pads bottom line

Sony Corp., of course, has been working both ends of the entertainment hardware-software equation for more than 20 years. The Japanese conglom has struggled for a decade to revitalize its television set manufacturing biz and other core operations. It still does plenty of volume but doesn’t turn much of a profit, comparatively. In the quarter ended Sept. 30, Sony posted $20.6 billion in revenue but just $388 million in operating income. New CEO Kazuo Hirai is trying to stanch the bleeding through a massive restructuring of Sony’s electronics divisions and a promise to shed 10,000 jobs by March.

The pressure on Sony to turn its fortunes around has reignited speculation that it will put its Hollywood studio on the block in an effort to streamline its focus. Sony Pictures Entertainment accounts for about 10% of the parent company’s total revenue, or about $8 billion in its 2011 fiscal year (which ended March 31). With all the chatter in U.S. media, Hirai took the unusual step of issuing a statement last week denying any plans to sell.

The perception of a major’s financial health is shaped by the performance of its movie division. In fact, knowledgeable sources say Sony’s TV operations — ranging from “Breaking Bad” to “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” to branded channels in 159 countries — account for 60%-65% of the studio’s revenue in recent years and probably as much if not a little more of its earnings. (Sony does not break down the numbers for film and TV.)

In reality, the studio isn’t big enough in the Sony scheme of things to make a dramatic difference to the corporate bottom line. But given the double-digit sales declines in other divisions, Tokyo surely won’t stand for even a small drain on earnings from the Culver City plant. That’s why execs on the film side of Sony Pictures went public last week with a plan to shrink its annual release slate by at least two pics starting in 2014 and to trim its development budget.

For longtime Sony watchers, the belt-tightening in the motion picture group brings to mind the more dramatic downsizing that Hirai’s predecessor, Howard Stringer, instigated 11 years ago (nearly to the day) on the TV side. The shuttering of the Columbia TriStar Television production unit was a lightning-strike move designed to give Sony a clean slate in order to re-engineer the cost structure of its TV biz, starting by wiping out a lot of pricey overall deals.

Before the dust settled on the Columbia TriStar TV tear-down, Stringer handed the reins of all domestic TV in late 2001 to Steve Mosko, who had impressed the boss with his entrepreneurial approach to running the studio’s syndie wing.

In the decade that followed, Sony rebuilt a leaner and much more globally focused business (international TV was consolidated under Mosko in 2009). Inevitably, Sony crept back into the big leagues of TV production with a more strategic focus on worldwide and long-term prospects when betting on projects. And there’s a frugality borne of the 2001 experience that permeates the operation. (Even top execs fly Southwest to visit the set of “Breaking Bad” in Albuquerque, N.M.)

But in the past few years, Sony Pictures TV has been spending again on writer-producer deals, emphasizing its independence as a major not aligned with a Big Four net as a draw for top-tier showrunners including Shawn Ryan, David Shore, Graham Yost, Ron Moore and Will Gluck. It has beefed up its investment in international production, acquiring equity in a handful of companies and dispatching Andrea Wong to head a London-based production outpost, and it’s stayed active in other low-risk genres such as reality, gameshows, daytime soaps, talkshows, telepics and miniseries.

As Sony makes what some see as long-overdue adjustments in movie spending, there’s little doubt that TV will continue to power earnings behind the scenes at Sony Pictures Entertainment and other majors. Even if the spotlight still gravitates to film.

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