In Depth

Column: What to Get the Exec Who Has Everything

Tis the season for year-end columns—and all the cliches that come with them. Including, apparently, lead sentences that begin with “‘tis the season.”

Lists, of course, are always a staple of columns this time of year. Coming up with New Year’s resolutions for public figures also is popular with scribes, since it allows us to impose our value systems on others.

I reserve the right to resort to those hackneyed devices in the future. For my final column of 2008, however, I opted to go with another well-worn story device: Holiday gifts I’d like to give some famous folks who work in the TV business.


Jeff Zucker: A signed first edition of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Stripping Jay Leno five nights a week and stripping several layers of management from NBC’s development process may ultimately prove to be wise moves. But both actions, along with the firing of Kevin Reilly a few years ago (and Katherine Pope this month), have made NBC Universal’s chief executive supremely unpopular with Hollywood’s creative community. No matter how many bold moves it makes, the network still needs this town’s writers and producers if it’s going to survive. Maybe Mr. Carnegie’s classic self-help tome could help Mr. Zucker mend some fences.

Ben Silverman: A razor. Seriously, dude, you couldn’t have shaved the morning of the Jay Leno conference?

Steve McPherson: A cover profile in the New York Times Magazine. As much as Lauren Zalaznick merited the glowing tribute the Times offered up earlier this year, Mr. McPherson is the TV executive most deserving of a little over-the-top media fawning (ergo, this column entry). He’s had a hand in developing more big hits and franchises for more networks than anyone else running a network right now; his successes include “CSI,” “According to Jim,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Scrubs,” “Lost,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Amazing Race,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “Monk.” He helped change TV marketing forever with campaigns focused on just a few shows. Even his failures—and, sadly, he had several of them this fall—reinforce ABC’s brand as the home of buzzworthy, quality programming. Mr. McPherson’s decidedly non-warm-and-fuzzy demeanor doesn’t always win him friends. And the folks at CBS regularly give him a run for his money. But Mr. McPherson is, hands down, the best creative executive at a broadcast network right now. He deserves some love.

Nina Tassler: “Dallas—The Complete First Season.” To remind the CBS Entertainment president that her network once was able to balance mystery dramas with frothy soap operas relatively free of dead bodies. Of course, Ms. Tassler is well aware of this fact, and she deserves credit for trying to revive the genre with shows such as “Moonlight” and “Cane.” But back when CBS aired “Dallas,” network suits seemed to understand the value of patience. “Dallas” finished No. 44 in the ratings during its first season; it didn’t become a top-10 hit until its third year. CBS should remember that the next time it prematurely pulls the plug on a promising series (cough, “Swingtown”).

The incoming reality bosses at CBS, NBC and The CW: The two-disc collector’s edition of “Braveheart.” Hopefully it will inspire them to find the courage to try new ideas rather than simply serving up pale imitations of existing hits. (Paul Telegdy, the incoming alternative boss at NBC, could start by calling off the network’s planned “Superstars of Dance,” a trainwreck of an idea that represents reality recycling at its most cynical.)

Fox chiefs Peter Liguori and Kevin Reilly: “Outfoxed: The Inside Story of America’s Fourth Television Network,” by former TVWeek editor Alex Ben Block. Perhaps it will remind them that Fox became a great network by focusing on groundbreaking, super-cool shows. There’s nothing super or cool about “’Til Death,” “Do Not Disturb” and Spike Feresten. “American Idol” has covered up far too many of Fox’s development sins and caused executives there to spend too much time trying to be the new CBS. Before “Idol” begins its inevitable decline, Fox needs to start taking a lot more rolls of the dice.

Steve Capus: “Sybil: The 30th Anniversary Special Edition.” The DVD of Sally Field’s classic split-personality performance might prompt the NBC News president to realize that his kingdom has some serious problems with multiple personalities. “Today,” for example, remains an almost awe-inspiring showcase of journalism’s best, mixing solid news coverage with supremely well-produced feature segments. But the show falls off a cliff during its fourth hour, when Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb begin blathering on mindlessly. Likewise, MSNBC has turned into three networks: Straight news during the day, left-leaning personalities at night and a nearly nonstop focus on depraved criminals during the weekends. The first two make MNSBC essential viewing, but the blood-spattered weekend lineup is seriously off-brand.

“Lost” showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse: A cable talk show to call their own. I had the privilege of seeing the dynamic duo in action at Comic-Con this summer, watching as they deftly entertained a room of nearly 7,500 geeks (myself included) with their annual “State of the Island” session. They were smart, funny and quick on their feet—natural-born performers. Bonnie Hammer should open up her wallet, now.

Craig Zadan and Neil Meron: A prime-time variety show to produce. The biggest mistake Rosie O’Donnell and NBC made in putting together her unfortunate (but not nearly as bad as everyone said) variety show was not hiring producers who were Ms. O’Donnell’s equal. Mr. Zadan and Mr. Meron—the team behind feature films “Chicago” and “Hairspray” as well as most of the really good TV movies of the past 20 years—know how to give audiences that razzle-dazzle. Someone ought to give them that chance.

SAG President Alan Rosenberg: A clue.

The rest of the TV industry: To quote Dan Rather, “Courage.” These are dark times for those who work in, and cover, the business of television. There’s no doubt TV, particularly at the network level, needs to make fundamental changes. I just hope the industry isn’t reinventing itself into irrelevance.