TV networks becoming more patient

Stability pays off at exec, programming levels

Through much of TV history, network executives acquired the not terribly reassuring nickname “Christmas help,” implying the jobs were fleeting and the occupants highly disposable.

Yet witnessing the carnage across the National Football League in the past week — with seven head coaches (including three who took teams to the Super Bowl) and a handful of general managers getting the heave-ho as soon as the regular season ended — Hollywood doesn’t look quite as capricious or short-tempered. In fact, held up against its own standards, it’s become relatively patient.

Granted, there is still no shortage of imperious bosses, willing to lop off heads at a whim and pass out dreaded “indie-prod deals.” Showbiz turnover, however, appears to have slowed, or at least has begun taking into account that in a business where so much is changing so fast, knee-jerk beheadings aren’t always the best response to a poor season.

To be fair, the NFL is a much smaller club than even the chummy confines of Hollywood, with only 32 franchises, and even ousted coaches are almost sure to be quickly recycled, if not on the sidelines then in the broadcast booth.

“The way the NFL operates, there is relative parity,” Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam told the New York Times, explaining coaching’s high mortality rate. “And you can turn things around quickly.”

In that respect, much of TV occupies a similar playing field. Every basic-cable network is essentially one breakout hit away from significantly moving the ratings needle — or taking a tumble when said standout rapidly cools, as was the case with MTV and “Jersey Shore,” or Nickelodeon and “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

As for the major broadcasters, they, too, have lost enough heft where one good move can make a substantial difference, as evidenced by NBC’s decision to roll the dice on two runs of “The Voice” this season, which markedly boosted its fall performance while other networks slipped.

This isn’t to say people aren’t getting replaced (including a number of personnel changes at Viacom’s nets), only that the conspicuous revolving door — such as the stretch where Fox bounced a top entertainment exec about every two years, whether they deserved it or not — doesn’t seem to be spinning quite as speedily.

There are advantages to maintaining a degree of equilibrium, since frequent restructuring makes determining credit (or blame) nearly impossible. One chief is always trying to make do with draft picks or development left behind by the previous regime, while installing his or her own staffs and systems. Giving people time to execute their vision not only creates more stability, but allows for a clear appraisal of performance.

Nor should it be lost on anyone that some of TV’s most successful enterprises have exhibited a level of management consistency that’s virtually unheard of. Indeed, the CEOs of CBS and Fox News Channel, Leslie Moonves and Roger Ailes, have both inked deals that will extend through 20 years at their respective homes. Similar dividends can be seen on the studio side, where Peter Roth (after one of those two-year stints at Fox) has headed prolific Warner Bros. Television since 1999 — the same year Dana Walden and Gary Newman began overseeing 20th Century Fox’s TV production unit.

Admittedly, there’s far more art than science to the question of when it’s time to signal for the bullpen. In “Top of the Rock,” former NBC Entertainment prez Warren Littlefield’s memoir of his two decades at the Peacock network, his boss of bosses, one-time GE chief Jack Welch, says that despite the hits developed during Littlefield’s tenure, he was finally let go because management felt he’d become “a dry hole.”

Often, the point does arise where even the most accomplished manager simply becomes tapped out. For now, though, there’s an element of wisdom in realizing that even if current leadership hits a dry patch, giving them a bit more time to keep digging can beat the temptation to throw the bums out.

Because as unsettled as things are, maybe even the “Christmas help” has a few unexpected gifts left in them.

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