Why Do Cable Execs Still Want Broadcast Jobs? (Analysis)

Issue 18 REP Crown Illustration - H 2013

Issue 18 REP Crown Illustration - H 2013

It's bad to be king: Among sinking ratings and creative shackles, the lure of the Big Four no longer makes sense.

This story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Call it the Greenblatt-Lee Syndrome. A TV programming executive (say, Showtime’s Bob Greenblatt or ABC Family’s Paul Lee) leaves a job running a lucrative cable network to take on a broadcast network (NBC and ABC, respectively) with shrinking viewership. The likelihood of “fixing” said network is slim; still, some seem to believe that they can — or at least they want to try.

“Everyone wants to be the savior because if you can do it, holy shit,” says one former broadcast chief. Adds a current cable head, one of several surveyed who acknowledge a desire for the broadcast job: “Business challenges notwithstanding, everybody would love that shot. And anybody that says otherwise is lying through his teeth.”

But the story is all too familiar. Grand plans of transforming the network system — Truncated seasons! Fewer notes! No more pilot season! — quickly end up with the exec becoming “network-icized,” as one chief puts it.

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In an era where cable offers a far healthier dual-revenue-stream system — or, in the case of premium cable, no dependence on ads at all — the desire to move from cable to broadcast seems altogether bizarre. That’s particularly true this time of year, when network execs have spent weeks sifting through about two dozen hastily made pilots only to select eight or nine series that are unlikely to last more than a season.

“If you’re thinking about your career path, you want to be on the cable side because that’s where the growth is,” says SNL Kagan analyst Derek Baine, who points out that the average cash-flow margin on cable was 40 percent in 2012, while that of the Big Four networks was only 5.4 percent. NBC, for instance, generated a $313 million loss in 2012, compared with the more than $1 billion that its cable sibling USA delivered during the same period.

Among the few who seem to prefer their cable perch is FX Networks president John Landgraf — ironic because his name is believed to be atop broadcast shortlists given his success. “I have a lot of respect for people who run broadcast networks, and I think they have a much harder job than I do because they work inside so many more business and creative constraints than we do,” he tells THR. “That doesn’t strike me as fun.”

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Others are lured by the desire for greater power, new challenges and/or the fulfillment of a longtime dream — not to mention broadcast salaries that can be three times as high as cable. “These people have grown up in a world where broadcast was the adults’ table and everyone else was at the kids’ table. You want to be at the grown-ups’ table. You feel like that’s who is paid attention to and that’s who matters,” says a studio chief, citing NBC legend Brandon Tartikoff as the role model, even though the landscape has changed so much that it isn’t clear Tartikoff would be on top today.

“There’s still a pecking order in Hollywood, which is film, TV, cable then radio,” says a cable exec. Adds another: “There is a bias toward broadcast. It’s somehow deemed more relevant and more meaningful.” The broadcast chief job does come with significantly larger budgets and green-light power over more shows. As one top agent puts it, cable offers the chance to hit singles and doubles, while broadcast offers the potential for a home run. Put another way, only broadcast TV houses billion-dollar franchises, be it CSI, The Simpsons or The Big Bang Theory.

And because there only are a handful of these jobs available — five, if you include The CW — they are that much more precious. This likely will change, however, if it already hasn’t, particularly among the under-35 set. Several execs who only would speak anonymously suggest that the next generation of executive talent will covet a job like Ted Sarandos’ at Netflix — a reflection of where the business, as well as the demo’s own tastes, are headed.