In Depth

Old Media Horses Try New Tricks

TV Vets Face Startup Realities in Next Phase of Careers

Herb Scannell walked into his New York City office about two months ago to find an editor handcuffed to a chair. A bare light bulb swung over the man's head.

It's the kind of scene he never stumbled across at his old job as vice chairman of MTV Networks and president of Nickelodeon.
The odd interrogation incident that confronted Mr. Scannell at Next New Networks, where he's been CEO since he founded the company in March, was the product of a promo shoot for one of the company's Internet TV shows.

"It's almost like the David Letterman show, where everyone winds up being on the show," said Mr. Scannell.

That's the way it goes for established media executives who dive into the entrepreneurial world of digital media. The view from the top of a startup doesn't have much in common with the view from the corner office of a television network. But a handful of high-profile former TV executives are trading in their chauffeured rides and first-class plane seats for the chance to build the online version of the next Nickelodeon, WB or CBS News.

One compensation for giving up the key to the executive washroom: The financial upside can be much greater at a startup than inside a large corporation.

"If they hit, they may have to take off their own shoes going through airport security, but that will have been worth it down the line," said Michael Eisner, the longtime Disney CEO who now runs online studio Vuguru.

Mr. Eisner is the highest-profile former executive now commanding a much smaller shop. The startup club also counts Jordan Levin, former CEO of The WB, who's a founding partner with Generate, a new-media online production shop and talent management firm. Former CBS News President Andrew Heyward now consults for a handful of small companies in New York.

The biggest difference is the daily grind.

Mr. Levin is now the guy changing the recessed light bulbs at Generate's Santa Monica, Calif., offices. He's making the Costco run every other weekend to restock soda, oatmeal, chips, peanuts and M&Ms for the staff. He's becoming adept at angling for a spot in the "A" boarding group at the Southwest Airlines gate. Before he goes through security, though, he parks his Prius in an airport lot.

He uses FedEx and the post office rather than a messenger service. That's because the cost of a swing set on a TV sitcom is the pricetag for an entire Internet show, he said.

"The cost of production is incredibly low, so you have to give up all the seductive accoutrements," he said. "You make your own phone calls a lot. You go and see people instead of people coming to see you."

Shedding corporate privilege carries the perk of shedding corporate pigeonholes.

"At Generate I am able to pursue creative that interests me without the filter of what has to fit either with a specific platform or demographics. That is very liberating," Mr. Levin said.

With 15 to 20 employees, rather than 1,200, Mr. Scannell can interact with most daily. Employees have more say as well. To fill a new research position, Mr. Scannell has asked everyone at Next New Networks' Murray Hill offices to recommend candidates. That's a task a human resources department would handle at a large network.

Development is faster, too.

"On the Internet you could get something up and running in a month, compared to at least three to nine months in TV," Mr. Scannell said.

But when you do it yourself, sometimes you have to do it all. Mr. Heyward is working without an assistant for the first time in 20 years.

As a result, he spends a few hours a week maintaining his own schedule, something he never did as a network news president.

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