Mel's Diner: Rod Perth
September 10, 2007 10:52 AM
The Dish: This outing was all kinds of unusual.
For starters, I wasn’t even sure it was going to happen. A week before I was scheduled to meet Rod Perth at the ReelzChannel headquarters for a tour of the futuristic facility and lunch nearby, the company announced he would step down as president after seven years in the job and take a consultant/advisory role.
“President to consultant” sounds a lot like “production deal” in this biz, aka “fired.” Would he want to go sit with me and talk about that?
I knew of Rod for a long time and always wanted to meet him. He spent many years at CBS and was portrayed by Ed Begley Jr. in “The Late Shift”, the 1996 film about the battle to succeed Johnny Carson. I knew he was credited with bringing David Letterman to CBS and that he left CBS to run the USA Network. But I didn’t know enough about him or the situation at Reelz to have a clue whether to take the announcement at face value.
So I asked. His people said he still wanted to have the meeting.
The great thing about the timing of his big change and our little lunch was that, given the news, Rod was flexible enough to spend a good amount of time showing me around the offices, swapping stories and enjoying a leisurely lunch at Cafe Pinot.
I definitely got to see and hear more with Rod Perth than I normally do during quick Mel’s Diner lunches. The first-hand view of the Reelz operation, an advanced, completely digital stunner, was super-cool. Since the network’s office and studio space was carved out of gutted areas of L.A. Center Studios, it represents the latest, greatest TV network infrastructure. It’s literally the embodiment of what a veteran TV exec could produce given the time to plan and the money to spend on the ideal network operation.
Reelz is the largest tenant of L.A. Center Studios. Rod took me for a walk around the perfectly painted entertainment utopia buzzing with the people who keep original programming geared toward “Everything About Movies” flowing on the channel 24/7.
It’s clean and modern without being cold, and each member of the productive-looking staff acknowledged Rod warmly as we walked by. The studio for Reelz’s show “Dailies” is sharp; it evokes old Hollywood. The digital systems in place make it possible for 100 people to simultaneously edit the same video file the instant it is ingested.
Rod named the conference rooms Minneapolis and St. Paul for the Twin Cities where Reelz owner Hubbard Broadcasting is based.
The physical facility was not the only thing built from the ground up. In six months last year, Rod took the channel from two people in Los Angeles (him and an assistant) to 250 people. The group moved into the studios in May 2006, just ahead of the network’s September 2006 on-air launch.
“It was an unbelievable sprint,” he said.
It all came together as Rod expected since the Hubbard family and he hatched the idea about seven years ago, except that it took a bit longer, particularly to get distribution as an independent. Still, the net debuted to 28 million homes last September, which Reelz says is the largest cable/sat premiere in history. The network is expected to be in 40 million homes by year’s end, Rod said.
Even more interesting than hearing and seeing all this, though, was getting to bear witness to what it’s like for an accomplished exec like Rod to switch career gears—as he was actually shifting.
Rod had yet to move from his swank office into the smaller space he plans to use, since he won’t be coming in every day.
I mentioned on our way from Reelz to lunch at Cafe Pinot, where the staff had thrown him a party the night before, that most people would take an announcement like his as a euphemism.
“Yeah, you can’t really control that,” he said, seeming unfazed, then adding that it is a little scary to think about not walking into work with this group every day.
He’s seen a lot in this business. We had a lot of fun dishing about his career to this point. He moved seven times in 15 years, working primarily in stations for CBS before returning home to the West Coast to run late night for the network. He later left CBS for USA at a time when top net execs were not taking big gambles on cable.
“I believed in cable,” he said. “We developed probably more original programming when no one was doing much in cable.”
Before Barry Diller swept Rod out of USA, he was able to invest in some of the first original series in cable, shows such as “La Femme Nikita,” and it was clearly a highlight for him.
Sitting at Pinot, we agreed that this summer originals on cable have officially arrived—and come a long way—with so many of them seeing record ratings.
“Budgets are enablers of more ambitious ideas,” Rod said.
“Nikita” was produced for around $800,000 or $900,000 per episode. Shows such as AMC’s lush, period series “Mad Men,” shot coincidentally at L.A. Center Studios, can cost around $2.2 million an hour.
As for Rod’s own ambitions, now that Reelz is “pointed in the right direction” and approaching its first on-air anniversary, he is going to take some time to decide on his next steps.
For example, earlier the day of our lunch, he turned down an offer to be CEO of a company.
Rod continues to serve as chairman of the board of public radio station KCRW, and he is talking to a number of people about entertainment business ventures, he said.
He plans to study digital photography and to do some world travel, including a motorcycle trip in New Zealand and hiking in France, and does not see himself pitching shows around town.
Then again, he said: “I don’t want to say never to anything.”
Dined On: It was just a few degrees from being too hot sitting in the sun on the patio.
The chilled offerings at Cafe Pinot, which specializes in seafood, hit the spot.
Hamachi is a favorite of mine, and Pinot serves it well over ice. We also kept cool with simple green salads, iced tea and sorbet dessert.
On the Books: Pat Mitchell, the Paley Center for Media