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I caught a huge break as a newbie TV critic by breaking in when Leslie Moonves was entertainment president of then-struggling CBS, andWarren Littlefield was entertainment president of NBC, which was at the tail end of one of the great runs in broadcast television as No. 1.
I was a music critic with almost no institutional knowledge of television and hadn’t even watched much of it in those current times. I figured those guys could teach me about this industry that I found so absolutely fascinating (because nobody really knew, with certainty, what they were doing or what would work and the fear-based nature of it I found truly compelling).
And they did teach.
Moonves especially, because he stuck around longer (and is now arguably the most powerful person in the industry). You may have seen Littlefield on stage at the Golden Globes Sunday night, as executive producer of Fargo. He remains a great guy to talk to about the business because he’s been making content for a while now and sees both sides (plus he, like Moonves — and it’s one of their best attributes — is not afraid to share their strong opinions).
Both those guys were open and sometimes eager to talk off the record about almost anything and that education helped compile much of what is my working knowledge of the business. Equally important? They didn’t take criticism personally. They could disagree — strongly at times — but neither shut me out or held a grudge and both followed the “reasonable people can disagree” mantra.
That’s not always true in this business. But maybe it should be — especially for executives who run networks/channels. Because especially at the broadcast network level, taking a job as entertainment president has about a 99 percent chance of you being collar-lifted and walked to your car.
If you run a network, you’re going to get fired. You know that going in, or should.
I’m not saying that it’s easy to hear rumors that you might be fired given how lousy the network you run is performing. I’m just saying you knew it was going to happen when you accepted the title, the money and the challenge, so don’t act shocked when it’s discussed.
I bring this up for several reasons.
First, I tried to figure out how many entertainment presidents from Littlefield to the present day had been fired. My initial thinking was, “All of them, except Moonves.”
The actual number is only infinitesimally more optimistic.
Littlefield was fired (and every person who took over NBC since that time, and ran it into the ground, was fired). Kevin Reilly got fired at NBC and walked across the street to Fox and eventually got fired there. That doesn’t make him a bad executive — he’s actually one of the best and brightest and is currently running TNT and TBS. No, it just makes him part of the natural order of the business of television, which is to accept the impossible task of churning out more hits than misses, season after season, and competing on an unfair playing field with cable, which has different rules, better creative perks (awards! prestige!) and a far less brutally exacting payback scheme for the endgame.
I guarantee you that Reilly knew he’d be fired at both network television stops and also, in the same breath, that he’d find work elsewhere without much problem.
Most (but not all), entertainment presidents do.
But let’s get back to getting fired:
Relax, you know it’s going to happen. This is a results-oriented, fear-based, paranoia-infested business where nobody — not one single person — has the recipe for success; i.e., knowledge of what an audience will want. I’ve lost count of how many network presidents were fired since I’ve been a television critic.
I asked another executive to guess the number: “A lot.”
There’s less of a six-feet-under-certainty rule on the cable side of things, but factor those inevitable losses into the equation and the total rises.
Because of course it does.
You’re a fool to take a network president job if rumors of your impending demise are going to unnerve you. You’re less a fool but certainly thin-skinned on the cable side if you’re bothered by Executive Death Pools.
Now, back to guessing at history. The current person running NBC is Bob Greenblatt, who hasn’t been fired precisely because he did what nobody else has been able to do in the post-Littlefield Success Era, which is turn around NBC when it was a garbage fire.
Greenblatt also, smartly, is one of the execs that just moves up a seat and puts someone else in as entertainment president (in this case, Jennifer Salke).
Adding a layer of protection is no real guarantee you won’t be fired, however, unless you’re Moonves.
He was the first entertainment president in the Littlefield Success Era to not be fired when all his counterparts at other networks got the shiv and their replacements were piano-wired.
CBS, which Moonves helped revive with people he trusts, has been particularly stable since his reign. His replacement, Nancy Tellem — who also taught me a lot about the business during her tenure — also moved up at CBS and in came Nina Tassler, who has been there ever since — she is the longest-tenured current entertainment president.
However, follow me down this rabbit hole for a moment: Tellem eventually left CBS and went to Xbox Entertainment Studios, where she was recently laid off when Microsoft shut the entire project down. Also laid off was her executive vice president Jordan Levin, who once ran The WB before that “ended” and he was replaced by David Janollari. Janollari, in turn, was then let go when The WB and UPN became The CW; he went on to be entertainment president at MTV before being ousted for Susanne Daniels, who was entertainment president at The WB and worked for and with Levin. When Daniels packed her bags at The WB, she went to Lifetime before “departing” that job and eventually going to MTV. You see where this is going, right? I mean, you see the blood on the tracks, yes? And that’s only a very miniscule example of the fired executive crosstown metro map.
Anyway, Tassler, who was at TCA on Monday, is still on the job because she’s really good and CBS is really successful.
It’s a crazy business that’s replete with pink slips. The don’t-take-it-personally philosophy is one that can probably make a person in such a position live longer, if not cut any usage of prescription pills like, say, Xanax, in half.
I bring this up because at the last TCA press tour this past summer, I ran into some grief from certain publicists who seemed irritable that I had the audacity to talk to ABC’s Paul Lee after saying not flattering things about him. My response was that I certainly had not said unflattering things about him, but that I was fairly sure I’d said tons of non-flattering things about some of his shows, but not about the man himself as a person, since I actually quite like Lee and have known him professionally since he ran BBC America ages ago.
Now, publicists are supposed to protect, so that wasn’t such a surprise. But I went back and looked for what might have triggered this reaction — this idea that I shouldn’t walk up to Lee like nothing had happened. I walk up to a lot of executives with the full understanding that I’ve written negative things about their places of employment, choice of shows, scheduling, etc., with the assumption that it’s not personal, so we can still be civil.
That’s not always the case, but I’m keeping it as the working assumption.
Anyway, here’s what I thought might be the seed in the gum-line at ABC: A paragraph written a couple of months earlier when Fox fired Reilly: “Everybody who had Fox’s Kevin Reilly being fired before Paul Lee, raise your hand.”
I wrote that because nobody thought Reilly was going to be fired (at least not right then). The odds were on Lee. But I would be stunned — stunned — if Lee took that personally. I would like to think he would have said something directly to me if it bothered him so much. But I respect the man’s intelligence too much to think for a moment he had no idea he might be on the hot seat at that particular time.
All the seats are hot in this town, especially if you’re near the bottom (or, probably more accurately, if you’re not No. 1, minus the spin).
Now, you might be thinking, “Sure, let’s see you not take it personally when you’re fired.”
I can assure you that I will take it very personally. Because I’m not in a job — nor is my mailman, or my favorite bartender or the person taking my burrito order — where there’s a 99 percent kill rate. Sure, all of us could get fired. But it’s more likely we’ll choose another job, get promoted into something different, move out of state, retire, change professions or die first.
However, if you’re a high-profile TV executive making programming decisions, in particular one at a broadcast network, your job trajectory is hired-fired.
But you know that.If you don’t know that, you should be fired for not knowing it.
There is nothing about your predicament that should be embarrassing or personal. You’re at or near the top of the food chain because you’ve been very good at what you do, at least before stepping into the killing fields of your new job.
If people are whispering about your job performance or status, that should have been outlined in your employee handbook when you signed on. Don’t take it personally.
That doesn’t mean you have to like it. I recently at TCA tried to gauge whether one head of a cable channel was really mad enough to not talk to me, as rumor had it (which I thought was a shame, because we also have history and most of that has been both good and respectful). He said no, all was good. I’m leaving his name out because I’m not sure he really meant it. In situations like those, I like to talk to the person either in person or on the phone. Most execs love television and they love talking about it — as do I. My working philosophy is the aforementioned “reasonable people can disagree” and if those differences can be set aside, if neither of us takes things personally, things usually work out great.
Unfortunately his publicist has been blocking my access to him so, we’ll see. (Note to execs: Sometimes when they’re trying to protect you, they’re hurting you. Open up, enjoy the job a little and bask in it. Moonves never hid from anyone — still doesn’t — and look at the size of his paychecks. Go mingle and have a chat).
Executives from ABC, NBC, Fox, FX and PBS are still to come. I’m sure I won’t get to talk to all of them. I’m even more sure some will be happy about that (Hi, Bob!). And what would I even say to Fox’s new trio of leaders — Dana Walden and Gary Newman as co-chairs of the Fox Television Group and David Madden as entertainment president?
“I’m sorry for your losses?”
“Excellent idea putting Madden out front, like a canary in coal mine!”
“Welcome to the beginning of the end. At least you’ve got the studio to go back to when it all goes to hell.”
I mean, none of that sounds very nice. “Good luck” would probably sound suspiciously snarky, like a verbal wink. I hope they know that all I want from them are great and entertaining shows. If the three of them have a long and productive run, bonus for them.
I’m assuming they know how it ends.
Before then, I hope they enjoy talking about television – what works and doesn’t work and why and how to fix it or make it better next time. I like talking shop – no matter what I put in print. Remember, it’s not personal.
During CBS’s portion of TCA, I had a nice, quick chat per usual with CBS’s Tassler — she’s both fiery and funny and has never once seemed less than completely thrilled with making television (well, sure, on occasion she’s looked like she wanted to tap dance on a head or two). But still — super upbeat and enthusiastic about the job she has. The job she’s excellent at. And it’s not like she’s unaware most critics want to choke the life out of Stalker.
She’s not punitive about those or other judgments.
I wished I’d circled back to talk more about James Corden with her. I like that hire and there’s so much to talk about — winning over America, potential pitfalls, etc.
Later in the day, Showtime was up. David Nevins, who runs the channel, is a guy I respect quite a bit. Now, talk about someone who had a reason to ignore me — I loathe The Affair and have been a longtime and loud complainer about Homeland. But he didn’t. The guy likes talking TV and doesn’t seem to take anything personally. We chatted a few times about The Affair and he welcomed a longer talk by phone. And he rightly seemed a little pleased that lots of critics who had abandoned Homeland had come back, including me when I swore I never would. See, that’s the thing about not taking it personally and, on a higher tier of understanding, being able to see criticism when it’s justified as part of the nature of our jobs. Reasonable people can disagree — it’s about the work, not the person — and then maybe later they can completely agree. The cycle of television is wonderfully fluid that way.
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