Mel's Diner: Preston Beckman
April 11, 2007 9:26 AM
Who: Preston Beckman, executive VP, strategic program planning and research, Fox Broadcasting Company
When: Wednesday, April 4, lunch
Where: The Beacon, Culver City
The Dish: Preston Beckman is a big deal in the TV biz. Most people know this. Over lunch I learned a few things you might not know. Here are my top 10:
1. How big of a deal he actually is. This guy calls some serious shots. He oversees all Fox strategic program planning and scheduling, including series launches, sweeps events, and year-round programming operations. He is responsible for all audience research and measurement initiatives at the top-rated network. (Okay, he didn’t share this during lunch—his Fox bio says it. But he really is the boss of all this stuff.)
2. He doesn’t worry about how “American Idol” performs in the ratings beyond, eh, about 5 years from now. He has his eye on retirement down the road, he said with a laugh-and the apparent confidence that the show will go on and on and on. “I think it can keep going,” he said.
He has, however, been debating daily with Fox reality guru Mike Darnell whether the return each week of widely-panned “Idol” performer Sanjaya Malakar this season is helping the show or hurting it. Darnell says it helps for now, Preston said. Preston added that he basically agrees and that he will be “shocked” if Sanjaya is “standing at the end.”
3. Preston fully expects Fox will be up in the ratings in the 4th quarter, annually the network’s trouble spot. He’s so sure that he told Peter Chernin, president and COO of Fox-parent News Corp, earlier in the day we had lunch that “we don’t have an excuse this 4th quarter,” he said.
Why? The network has two things going for it: A relatively stable schedule and some good hopes in development.
“We always feel good with ‘Idol’ on the air and I love Fox Sunday nights—it’s old school Fox,” Preston said. “Our job is to build the house so you can change the furniture once in awhile. We’re getting close.”
Priorities for the fall are finding a companion for “House,” “Til Death” and “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader,” as well as some more non-animated comedy that works. It’s not a short order, but doable, Preston said.
“I am always looking for shows that are great series, not just a good pilot,” he said. “You want to repeat some of these, not serialize everything.”
If a solid companion to “House” could make Tuesday a drama destination night, Fox might considering moving “Idol,” he said.
4. It’s pretty tough to tweak Preston Beckman. I said he doesn’t worry about “Idol” down the line, right? Well, he seems to be an exemplary take-it-in-stride guy in general.
Sitting down for a long lunch on an April day in the homestretch of a hard-fought TV season, he looked so … unflappable. And that’s with “Idol” showing a hint of wear in the ratings, hopes high that “Til Death” will continue building, and pilots and table reads underway for projects being considered for next season, etc. etc.
“I’m always relaxed,” he said, “I’ve never taken this stuff seriously. I’m just happy to be doing this job.”
“I honestly am very competitive; I like to win,” he added. “But I sleep well at night.”
Preston said he likes to quote his former NBC boss Don Ohlmeyer: “Some days you’re the windshield, some days the bug.”
When I pressed him about sensitive subjects, like how “Idol” judge Paula Abdul often seems stoned on the air, he just smiled and—in a nice, respectful way—shut me down with, “I’m not gonna talk about that.”
5. He got NBC into the reality game with video of a man’s head plunging into an elephant’s butt. Back in the days when producer Bruce Nash was supplying Fox shocking videos like those on “When Animals Attack”—and big ratings to go along with them—NBC was not yet airing reality programs.
Preston and NBC marketing honcho John Miller took a meeting with the producer, who showed them the elephant video. And told them he had a, ya know, buttload of others like it.
Preston and NBC quickly stole Nash away from Fox and launched “Amazing Videos.”
6. He designed an egalitarian, family-room-style screening process for pilot season that seats the likes of News Corp. Chairman-CEO Rupert Murdoch next to young assistants in small groups around a 36-inch TV. Virtually everyone at the network participates, and everyone’s say is taken into account. Each group is diverse both in terms of rank and department.
He established the procedure at NBC, which still uses a similar approach. Fox is changing the deal a bit this year, incorporating slightly bigger groups, but with the same basic idea, he said.
7. His best buddy, Vince Manze, was just made Preston’s direct rival at his old NBC stomping grounds. Earlier this month Manze, who was president and creative director of the NBC Agency since 1999, was named president of NBC program planning, scheduling and strategy for NBC Universal.
“He’s always been a competitor; now he’s just in the same job,” Preston said.
8. The son of a New York cab driver, Preston supported himself while attending NYU by driving a taxi overnight. He’d start at about 3 or 4 a.m. and work til 2 p.m. Then he went to class.
As for sleep, he could “get away with 3 hours of sleep in college.” He still doesn’t need much shut-eye. He rises these days at 4 in the morning.
9. That is Dr. Beckman, thank you very much. “Nah, don’t write that,” Mr. Modesty said.
Preston got his Ph.D. in Sociology from NYU. He was working at Adelphi University when a friend told him about a job in research at NBC. They were looking for someone who could work with statistics.
“And I liked TV,” he said. It turned out to be his first gig in the business.
10. He especially liked wrestling on TV back then. Still does. It was “on every night” when he was a kid growing up in Queens. His Dad took him to matches.
The melodrama of pro wrestling taught him a thing or two about storytelling. The bad guys, he said, were generally “more interesting.” Which is perhaps why he doesn’t mind that Fox has cultivated a cutthroat, morally ambiguous persona. “We love it,” he said.
Dined On: Call Preston a Renaissance man. The wrestling fanatic is also a big fan of jazz, which is how he discovered Beacon.
The restaurant is in the Helms Bakery complex that also is home to the Jazz Bakery, which he and his wife frequent. He’s been there quite a few times since, often for staff celebrations.
We shared some appetizers to start, spring rolls, ahi pizza and chicken wings. Good, good and good.
I’ll give a hearty rec to my entrée, the short ribs—very good.
What was great, though, was the krispy sundae dessert, which I basically stole from our chaperone, Fox corp comm’s Scott Grogin. He ordered it, I ate it.