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In the television business, you are where you eat as much as you are what you eat.

TelevisionWeek Managing Editor Melissa Grego is tapping into Hollywood's penchant for the working meal with her TVWeek.com feature, Mel's Diner. Ms. Grego sits down with television industry players at their favorite restaurants, giving readers a window into the minds -- and appetites -- of industry heavyweights.

As each Mel's Diner guest dishes about what they're working on, planning and thinking about, Ms. Grego provides a unique view of the television business from the insiders perspective.

TVWeek.com invites fans of Mel's Diner to report back in the comments section on the meals, deals, or anything at all that is eating them about what the featured players have to say.

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Mel's Diner


May 2007 Archives

Mel's Diner: Chuck LaBella

May 25, 2007 12:59 PM

Who: Chuck LaBella, executive producer, Starz’s “The Bronx Bunny”
When: Monday, April 23, lunch
Where: Pane e Vino

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The Dish: Chuck LaBella spent much of the week we met for lunch getting calls about actor Alec Baldwin’s infamous voicemail to his daughter. A native of Massapequa in Long Island, N.Y., Chuck went to high school with the Baldwin brothers. He’s particularly tight with Billy Baldwin, he said, and folks consider him a “Baldwin touchstone.”

He wasn’t exactly raring to offer his thoughts on Alec’s situation on the record, so I can’t tell ya his reaction to the voicemail.

A quirky coincidence that did come up on the record: Chuck’s obsession with the television business, which has been with him since he was 6 years old, focused quite early on NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York. He was aware of 30 Rock, the source of many of his favorite shows, and just really, really wanted to work there someday. Of course, that’s what Alec’s character on, wellll, NBC series “30 Rock” does.

Chuck did get a gig there as an intern in development at the beginning of his career. He went on to work as a radio personality and producer and then became the first talent executive for “Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher.”

Given his knack for getting to know people and the fact that Chuck has a nice way about him, he became one of the most sought-after talent and celebrity producers. He’s worked on “The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” and “Celebrity Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Recently he was talent producer on NBC’s “Grease: You’re the One That I Want” and “Thank God You’re Here” and ABC’s “The Next Big Thing” and “The Big Give.”

He continues booking shows, but what Chuck was most excited about at lunch was the fact that Starz was in the midst of debuting “The Bronx Bunny,” his first big show of his own.

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Part of the pay cabler’s new comedy block, “The Bronx Bunny” is a talk show led by two foul-mouthed puppets, Bronx Bunny and Teddy T. (“T” standing for Tourette’s syndrome).

The puppets are remarkably well prepared for celebrity interviews on the show and “take the piss” out of the guests, Chuck said. There’s puppet porn and lots and lots of language you won’t hear on “Sesame Street.”

‘It’s filthy, it’s filthy,” Chuck said. “But it’s funny, too. My mother saw it and said, ‘Honey, that’s filthy. But funny.’ She saw ‘Grease’ and liked that, then saw this, which was quite different.

“The show is funny aside from the crudeness,” he said. “You can get away with anything with puppets.”

When “Star Wars” star Mark Hamill was on the show, the puppets said they know everyone asks him the same questions over and over, Chuck said. Then the duo told him they were going to do the exact same effing thing.

Chuck’s partners on the show are a couple of Irish guys who were doing some work with these characters in the U.K., utilizing the Bronx accents.

“They created this because they loved ‘The Sopranos,’” Chuck said. “Being Irish, I guess they were raised with the same Catholic guilt.”

Chuck experienced the “whole spectrum of cliche experiences” getting the project on the air. He is really pleased to have wound up at Starz, which he said seems to be genuinely looking to emulate a young HBO with its new, edgy originals.

Dined On: Chuck picked Pane e Vino for its authenticity.

“I come here for the red sauce and garlic,” he said.

If you didn’t gather from his last name, or the name of the restaurant, we’re talking Italian cuisine.

Neither of us went the tomato route at this meal, however. Rather, Chuck suggested his regular lunch special option, paillard di pollo con rucola e asiago (aka pounded chicken breast with arugula and Asiago cheese). It was simple and light and I could see why he considers it whenever he comes here.

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An added bonus: While we sat outside, I personally enjoyed dining on a patio that was relatively free of bits of nature. I don’t know why this always is the case, but my favorite Italian restaurants in L.A. seem to come with the added danger of getting pelted in the head, the plate or both by things falling from trees. Pane e Vino steers clear of these hazards. Another of my favorite “real” Italian restaurants in L.A., Orso, gets me every single time.

There are lots and lots of options for good Italian fare in Los Angeles. Dare I ask, what is your favorite?

On the Books: World Poker Tour’s Steve Lipscomb

Mel's Diner: Ross Greenburg

May 11, 2007 4:57 AM


Who: Ross Greenburg, president, HBO Sports
When: Saturday, May 5, lunch
Where: Studio Café , MGM Grand hotel and casino, Las Vegas

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Dined On: Apologies to my foodie friends, because the eats were truly beside the point of this lunch. We were fed by atmosphere, people!

Ray Stallone from HBO Sports communications department arranged for a great booth at the Studio Café overlooking the jam-packed MGM Grand casino floor just hours before the WBC Super Welterweight Championship fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather.

In the run up to HBO’s exclusive live pay per view telecast of the bout, descending boxing fans and throngs of people celebrating Cinco de Mayo created 405 freeway-style pedestrian traffic jams throughout the MGM and the routes to it from other hotels.

Among the people in the MGM crowd was Lennox Lewis’ mom Violet, who stopped by with a friend to exchange warm hellos with Ross.

The Dish: I got to meet Ross Greenburg on a big day at the end of a big week. Or maybe I should say a big six months, since the match up and the four-part behind-the-scenes HBO Sports reality show about the boxers, “24/7,” started coming together in December.

I immediately got the sense he was savoring the magnitude of the day, which HBO and De La Hoya’s promo machine Golden Boy Productions hyped as the one “The World Awaits.”

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In addition to all the week-of prep and decision-making, like bumping up the number of cameras from 18 to 20 (with one dedicated to celeb watching), he’d been busy talking to the press. The day before our lunch, I punched his name into the Factiva news search and up popped 55 articles for the previous week alone.

“I woke up at 4:30 this morning unable to sleep,” he said.

Although he arrived in Las Vegas Thursday, and this was Saturday, he attributed the restlessness to a combination of adjusting from the East Coast to West Coast time zone and the sort of fight night jitters he generally only got when he was personally the producer of the telecast.

When I asked him what needed to happen for him to deem the event a success, he said everything was pretty much considered done.

Some 7,000 hours of footage for “24/7” was turned around in a matter of four months, making it practically real-time. The producers had to deal with vast challenges like keeping up with Mayweather’s unusual training schedule. That sometimes meant going for a run at 1 a.m.

But it was worth it.

“24/7” clearly connected with people and raised the profile of the match and the sport, he said. On average, the first two weeks of the show averaged a cumulative 4.1 million viewers, according to HBO.

“From here, it’s gravy,” he said.

Well, mostly.

Ross admitted his dream was to find out when the PPV numbers come in that the fight has “blown the top off the record.” (His wish came true.)

The fight itself was a hot ticket too. I overheard someone at the airport saying he was offered $25,000 for his $2,000 ticket. Ross said his brother knew of someone who paid $90,000 for four seats.

In fact, Ross, a 29-year veteran of HBO Sports, said the ticket requests he got were unprecedented and included many from the celeb ranks. He expected 200-ish real deal stars to attend.

Ross was scheduled to sit in the third row with HBO Chairman-CEO Chris Albrecht and fight fan and Time Warner Chairman and CEO Richard Parsons. Leonard DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire had seats a few rows behind them. Ross said he was “so proud” for Chris Albrecht and the rest of the network to “take ownership in an event like this. It’s not that often HBO can take ownership in a Super Bowl-like event.”

I was scheduled to attend the big bout and was nervous about it. Would somebody get really hurt? Would I feel guilty enjoying violence framed as a game, like I was watching Gladiators?

Ross assured me that the apparent world-class athleticism would impress me and that the feeling in the arena is remarkable, especially when the crowd roars as Oscar walks in.

“I’m an emotional guy—have you seen our documentaries?” Ross said with endearing self-deprecation.

(Yes, by the way. I’m a huge fan of the HBO Sports.)

“When people scream as De La Hoya enters, I wonder, God what that must feel like for him,” Ross said. “There is nothing like the electricity of a prize fight.”

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He was right. A few hours after lunch I found myself physically feeling the hum of the full arena as the fans waited for the athletes to make their entrances. I’ve been to pro hockey games, NBA finals, NASCAR. The only sporting event that came close to this feeling of being part of a true American spectacle was a big game in University of Michigan’s Big House, which holds exponentially more seats than the space I was in.

What I’ve never seen is such a clearly one-sided crowd. At least once during every round people began chanting “Oscar.” When Mayweather was named the winner, I heard nothing but “Boooo!”

A lot of the press I read leading up to the event questioned whether boxing was dead or dying and whether this fight could save it. Considering the enthusiasm I witnessed that weekend and the $120 million in pay-per-view revenue the fight generated that night, I found that anthem kind of kooky.

Ross insisted the boxing-is-dead refrain is hogwash.

“I’ve done enough research on this sport through documentaries, all sorts of programs and I can tell you there have been certain times over a period of 100 years, usually when the heavyweight title is in question, when people say boxing is dying,” he said, adding that there was a headline once that asked whether Joe Louis could save boxing.

It’s not the glory days of the 1980s right now, but “I know this sport is not dying. It’s not dead. It’s here to stay on HBO,” he told me. He also said he has a theory about all the boxing-is-dead buzz.

“A lot of fringe writers and journalists who do not cover our sport on a daily basis are now turning their attention to De La Hoya and Mayweather and perhaps rationalizing why they have not been writing about these people by saying it’s a dying sport,” he said.

Whether that’s true or not, Ross has been taking steps to keep a spotlight on and grow the sport. For it to continue thriving, “the storytelling and drama of the fighters needs to come through.”

HBO in the last couple years has been spending more time on interstitial vignettes about boxers and upping the amount of profiles during boxing telecasts. “24/7” of course also was part of an effort to draw people into the drama and personalities of the sport.

He’s also committed to telling these stories in a truthful, artful way.

“We are documentarians at HBO Sports,” he said, adding that before joining HBO he picked up a lot as a young P.A. at ABC Sports under the late Roone Arledge’s tenure. He said he applies Roone’s philosophies to everything HBO Sports does.

“You can’t fool the American public,” he said. “We need to deliver truth.”

That’s why he gives announcers freedom to speak their minds, he said.

He told me a story of how Jim Lampley, who announced Saturday’s fight, says one of his fondest memories of doing a fight with Ross was the Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield fight in which Lewis appeared to win. It was deemed a draw.

“Before the crowd could start chanting I hit his IFB and said, ‘Go for it,’” he said. Jim came up with a one minute diatribe that some consider a great part of boxing history.

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Another moment in HBO boxing that will go down in history is the fact that the night of the De La Hoya-Mayweather fight ended on a sour note for Chris Albrecht. He got into an altercation outside the MGM that landed him in jail. He was forced to resign a few days later on May 9.

On the Books: Chuck LaBella, executive producer, Starz series “The Bronx Bunny”

Mel's Diner: Bob Madden

May 4, 2007 1:49 PM

Who: Bob Madden, president-chief operating officer, CBS Television Distribution
When: Wednesday, April 18, lunch
Where: Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles

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The Dish: Good things happen when Bob Madden eats pizza.

Bob has been referred to as the third King brother, having worked with the syndication veterans/legends/brothers Roger and Michael King for more than two decades. So I hoped if I got him drunk on high-end pizza he would spill an on-the-record anecdote or two.

Bless those pies, that is what he did.

Lots of tales have been told about the legendary King family, who made many waves while distributing “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Dr. Phil,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy!” and “Inside Edition” forever and ever. Bob has been there firsthand for many of them.

One of my favorites I’ve heard involves Roger paying guys in the bathroom line at a casino $1,000 each to allow him to cut in front of them.

The Kings “have done many exciting things, but their reputation is exaggerated,” Bob said. “Deep down, they’re just brilliant, good men.”

They spent a lot of time “knocking on doors and sitting in general managers’ offices when no one would hear them,” he said. They are “once-in-a-lifetime characters. … The opportunity to be with legends like them is rare.”

Among the things Bob has been there for was the $2.5 billion sale of King World to CBS in 1999. And he was there last September when CBS Corp. created CBS Television Distribution Group, which combined CBS Paramount Domestic Television, King World and CBS Paramount International Television into one unit. Bob and John Nogawski both were given the titles of president-COO of the new division. Roger King, who Bob says still gets excited “about the sale of any item,” is CEO.

When Bob told me how he first hooked up with the Kings, I thought, Sure, I imagine that would be exactly how he became their consigliere.

In 1985, Bob had a thriving divorce law business in Beverly Hills. Michael King came to him for some legal help buying a home in Malibu. They had plans to go out to dinner one night to talk shop, but when Michael showed up at Bob’s house they decided instead to order in—imagine this—pizza.

They also shared a few cocktails. Michael told Bob about Oprah Winfrey and at one point, probably early the next day, Bob agreed to go work with them.

The next day (er, maybe later that morning?), Bob began extracting himself from 100 divorce cases. It took him 60 days (He still keeps his legal license up.) He worked for the Kings personally for 11 years; then in 1996, when the COO of King World Productions left the company, Bob replaced him.

Bob now is eyeing development for the 2008-09 season. The company—which now includes all that King World had plus such shows as “Entertainment Tonight” and “Judge Judy,” something like 70,000 hours total—is considering many projects, including two game shows with Sony, “Combination Lock” and “Joker’s Wild.”

But with eight of the top 10 shows in syndication, CBS isn’t desperate to launch another one. All new projects have to meet three criteria: Be well-produced, well-sold (strong time slots, stations), and profitable.

Depending how development goes for next year, that means CBS “could have none or 10,” Bob said.

Dined On: Bob Madden and I both visited this restaurant once before. But his Mozza “first” is a way better story than mine.

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No disrespect, of course, to NATPE boss Rick Feldman, who joined me there in March.

It’s just that Bob dined with “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal there a year ago, before it was open, construction was complete or the delish menu was set. Before, ahem, “everybody” else—and at Phil’s suggestion. (Phil, who’s also passionate about food, is an investor in Mozza as well as Jar in L.A.).

During Bob’s first meal at Mozza, restaurateur Nancy Silverton, one of the partners, personally brought out a selection of pizzas for him and Phil to try while they hammered out their approach to converting the first four seasons of “Raymond” to high definition (the later seasons were all shot in HD).

Bob’s division at CBS syndicates “Raymond,” and the HD upgrade he and Phil worked out last year has gone smoothly. He said they were on target for every episode of the show to air in HD starting in February. The seven-figure cost to pull off the switch is a sound investment in the grand scheme for the sitcom, he said.

“It’s a classic,” Bob said. “We want to present it for the next 30 years in the best possible way.”

Nancy did not personally bring the bianco, funghi and fennel sausage pizzas that Bob and I shared with John Wentworth, CBS TV Distribution’s exec VP of communications. But the food and service did not disappoint.

Bob and I are both Detroit-raised, full-blooded Italian Americans, so it seemed fitting to end our meal by enforcing my favorite Italian family dining rule: My mom taught me to always leave the table on a sweet note. So I insisted we order dessert. It took a giant twist of the arm (uh-huh), but I talked the CBS guys into a butterscotch something or other. Yum.

I know it looks like we ate a ton. Bob, for one, can afford it. He ventures out of his Pacific Palisades home every day for a 5- to 8-mile run. He has covered every street from Hermosa Beach to Ventura to the Hollywood Bowl and beyond, using a 1997 Thomas Guide to map his adventures.

On the Books: Boxing(ing) lunch in Las Vegas with HBO Sports’ Ross Greenburg