Food for thought: HRTS panel turns Barry blue

Sonnenfeld steals show at luncheon

Network chiefs are usually front and center at the annual HRTS luncheon. This year, they were more like background players who alternately smiled and cringed during a lively, often funny yet uncomfortable panel discussion that was mostly about moderator Barry Sonnenfeld's take on things.

Sonnenfeld quickly set the tone Tuesday by opening with a story about the size of his penis. He followed up by asking such off-the-cuff questions as "Do you get more sex as an independent producer or an executive, and has sex changed?" (to NBC's Ben Silverman); "Do you agree that Peter Liguori is so handsome, you have to punch him in the face?" (to Fox's Kevin Reilly); "Has Les Moonves ever threatened to kill one of you?" (to CBS' Nina Tassler and the CW's Dawn Ostroff); and, to all of them, "If death was not an option, who would you rather drive in a car with cross country — Les Moonves in a really bad mood or Steve McPherson?"

Needless to say, all of these questions remained unanswered.

To the disappointment of those who shelled out $200-$400 a pop to hear the network chiefs' insights on the current state and future of the broadcast business or to see Silverman and ABC's McPherson spar over McPherson's infamous "be a man" comment in July, the panel didn't feature either. (McPherson and Silverman were strategically situated far from each other on the stage, and Silverman even complimented McPherson on the scheduling of the comedy "Samantha Who?" behind a 90-minute "Dancing With the Stars.")

Like an episode of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Sonnenfeld vented about everything in Hollywood he has a beef about — long pitch meetings, budget tensions over shows that are not vertically integrated (through the prism of his experience on the ABC/Warner Bros. TV series "Pushing Daisies"), pilot testing and pilot season.

All the network chiefs sided with Sonnenfeld's dismissal of the current pilot season model that cramps the production of more than 100 pilots into a three-month period.

"It's crazy, it makes no sense," McPherson said. "It's like shooting all action movies of the year within two months."

Added Reilly: "Everything gets locked into this dance. One good thing that might come out of a strike … it would give us an excuse to shake things up."

Sonnenfeld did address the looming strike by pressing on the issue of writers' new-media residuals, a sticking point in the WGA's contract negotiations with the networks and studios.

When Tassler argued for a "wait-and-see approach" as no one knows exactly how the digital platforms would be monetized, Sonnenfeld fired back that writers have to be paid regardless.

"When you get hired as the head of CBS, we don't know if you're going to do a good job or a bad job, but we pay you a salary nonetheless," he said.

The only spark between the chiefs flew while they were answering a question about how they spend their weekends.

As the youngest and only single person on the panel, Silverman began with "When I'm not dating your kids …," prompting his predecessor at NBC, Reilly, to lean over and say, "I have two boys," to cheers from the audience.