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Marianne Paskowski



MTV to Boomers: Bye for Now!

February 19, 2007 12:00 AM

Last week MTV Networks chieftain Judy McGrath announced an RIF (reduction in force) that should not have surprised anyone, given the earlier housecleaning that began in September with the firing of Viacom President and CEO Tom Freston, her boss at MTV's parent company. Soon after that execution, three other top executives got the heave-ho. And now we're looking at another 250 employees who also didn't make the cut.

But some will come back in different roles-like "Hi, bye, do come back"-as independent contractors. The reorg at MTV comes only a week after a restructuring at Discovery Networks. At other companies the party line is that the restructuring will allow them to become more deft at growing Internet revenues.

My take: Get rid of the high-priced baby boomers running the show. After all, there is a pattern here: Lop off a vital limb-the top dogs at these media companies-and then cut deeper by eliminating executive VPs and senior VPs. That's what we have witnessed to date.

Yes, it's true: All of the major media companies are undergoing seismic changes, admitting they have not yet found the Holy Grail in monetizing their online broadband strategies. "So far there is very little growth online, even at major media companies investing in the Internet," said Korn/Ferry International senior client partner Bill Simon.

He heads up executive recruitment in the TV space for that search firm and says that his assignments have changed dramatically over the past 18 months. Companies are desperately looking for executives who are entrepreneurial (my translation: younger and cheaper) to find solutions to monetize the Internet. Just a year ago, most of Korn/Ferry's searches were for placing executives at traditional, linear content companies. Not so today.

So are TV content providers really botching it up that badly online? You would think so, according to all the bad ink of late. Not so fast, says The New York Times' chief futurist (great title, a wonderful human being and my new best friend) Michael Rogers. He actually thinks, as he said in a phoner last week, that TV has learned a lot about prior snafus on the Internet from the newspaper and music industries. Google this guy. You'll learn a lot.

So what's really at the root of all of these reorgs? Well, whatever it is, it's just the beginning, according to Ann Carlsen, founder and CEO of Carlsen Resources, an executive search firm based in Grand Junction, Colo. She'll tell you, based on her vast client base, that this day of reckoning has been "a long time coming." In some respects, as always, it's about sucking up to Wall Street with short-term quarterly gains.

But it's not just the Internet. It's about the bulk of the population, the baby boomers who fill high-ticket jobs. "It's hard to find people to fill Internet positions. The younger people have 20 percent of the skill set of the boomers," but the boomers are being ushered to the door, or leaping for it, she said.

And no surprise here, some of them get fired only to get rehired as independent contractors to do a specific project, minus the health benefits, which are a huge cost to corporations.

She said many of the let-go middle and senior managers will come back as independent contractors. And that's because they have institutional knowledge. But corporate America is only willing to pay so much for that knowledge and the relationships between them and their customers.

"Companies just don't want the overhead anymore. I've talked to 60 or more people in the past week who have been displaced, and told them to think of Darwin: Adapt or die," Ms. Carlsen said.

Meanwhile, Michael Levine, president of Michael Levine Search Consultants, a New York-based executive search firm, has some good advice: "Things don't die, they go digital." He points to Bravo President Lauren Zalaznick at NBCU, who inherited the Trio cable network and has just reincarnated it as an online-only destination.

And the fate of the fading baby boomers? Mr. Levine's advice is, "Be ready for your second or third chapters." He thinks those chapters exist. And so do I.