In Depth

Adalian Column: Fear Factor: Bold Move Beats Cowering

The many and varied characters who populate the business of television can be forgiven for feeling as if their lives lately have started to resemble those of characters in a really bad horror movie.

Every day seems to bring another over-the-top plot twist or bloody execution, be it NBC’s decision to move Jay Leno to primetime or word that Peter Chernin is stepping down as president of News Corp.

Mysterious hand

A dark cloud seems to hang over everything in Hollywood these days, a sense of foreboding that something even more evil, more shocking, is just around the corner.

“There’s just this feeling of fear everywhere you go,” the president of a major showbiz company told me recently.

The Fear is evident when a network decides to push a promising pilot to next season because of “casting problems.” Pilots get pushed all the time, but in this climate, it’s hard not to question whether decisions to do so are being driven more by skittishness over risking too much money on development.

The Fear also reveals itself when TV stations rail against a delay in the digital TV switch because they don’t want to have to spend the few thousand dollars it will take to keep their analog transmitters running for a few more months. Or when huge TV syndicators opt to sit out an entire development season rather than try to launch promising new product at a time in which profits aren’t a given.

It’s largely ego—but also The Fear—that drives network executives to meddle in the creative process like never before, questioning every word in a script and every line in a budget. “I don’t see how the notes could get any worse,” one top TV agent said.

And while there are signs that some networks may be getting ready to once again take some chances in reality programming, The Fear is why there have been so few new breakout unscripted hits on both broadcast and cable networks in recent years. Why take chances on unproven concepts when “Rock the Flavor of I Love New York” is guaranteed to draw a certain number of channel-surfing rubberneckers?

Peter Chernin

Peter Chernin

Mr. Chernin’s exit from News Corp. probably wasn’t driven by fear, nor is there evidence to suggest the national economic crisis played a significant role in his decision-making process. I highly doubt the man some inside News Corp. have dubbed “the smiling cobra” was afraid of navigating Rupert Murdoch’s ship through choppy waters for a few more years.

Still, Mr. Chernin’s departure from an executive role has only added to the angst people in Hollywood are feeling right now.

While he’s never been a media magnet like CBS’ Leslie Moonves or NBC’s Jeff Zucker, Mr. Chernin has been key to the successful operations of Mr. Murdoch’s Hollywood assets.

He may not have sat in on casting sessions, as Mr. Moonves still sometimes does, but Mr. Chernin has signed off on every major series greenlit by Fox or FX in recent years. If it sometimes seemed as if Fox took a little bit longer to announce a key scheduling move or pick up a certain project, it’s more than likely because executives at the network were waiting for Mr. Chernin to chime in.

And in what may have been his most valuable role, Mr. Chernin was the man who made sure the ambitious folks who run News Corp.’s various film and TV units didn’t trample over each other in their rush to climb the rungs of the corporate ladder. He also played a key diplomatic role in settling the writers strike last year.

“Everyone in that company respected him,” one observer said. “He had done most of their jobs before. That’s not easy to replace.”

True, but News Corp. won’t exactly be rudderless after Mr. Chernin leaves. Mr. Murdoch, after all, knows a few things about leadership—and taking chances.

As much of a blow as Mr. Chernin’s exit might be, his departure allows Mr. Murdoch the chance to do something he’s done countless times over his career: Shake up the conventional wisdom. With so much of Hollywood frightened of its own shadow, perhaps this is the time for Murdoch the Madman to emerge.

The man who launched a fourth broadcast network, stole away the NFL from CBS and took on CNN could change the mood in Hollywood overnight with another bold move. There’s been talk of Mr. Murdoch going after the New York Times; what if he spent that money in Hollywood instead?

Perhaps I’m indulging in a bit of recession-inspired fantasy. Mr. Murdoch has shareholders, after all, and they probably wouldn’t appreciate him doing something outrageous like making a play for NBC or launching some big new cable network.

But thinking about such scenarios, however unlikely, sure beats wallowing in The Fear.