The Genius of Nikki Finke, and Her Boss, Jay Penske. And the Selling of Variety to Penske

Oct 9, 2012

It was a far more genteel world almost 30 years ago when I was a reporter at The Hollywood Reporter and when I turned down a job offer to work at Variety.

When I started at THR as the cable and home video reporter, I routinely got my butt kicked by my counterparts at Variety, who always seemed to get exclusives that were just out of my grasp. After a number of months that finally changed, and I was able to build enough relationships in Hollywood to start getting exclusives on my own, especially on the TV beat.

Back then both THR and Variety were still family-owned. I guess I was doing something right because Syd Silverman asked me to lunch one day and offered me a job to come to Daily Variety. I only turned it down because he was unwilling to give me a penny more than I was already making at THR.

I remember reading some of Nikki Finke’s pieces when she wrote for the New York Observer. But when I — and much of the entertainment world — started paying much more attention to her was when she started writing her Deadline Hollywood pieces for the L.A. Weekly about 10 years ago.

Finke broke the genteel barrier. Not genteel meaning pretentiously polite, but genteel meaning genuinely polite and refined.

So, for example, if I had broken a story about Joe Jones leaving a top position at CBS TV, at the most I’d write that Jones was being forced out, if that was true.

When Finke found out that Joe Jones was leaving a top position at CBS TV, she would write something like, “Joe Jones, for years an empty suit at CBS, and said by many of his colleagues to be an asshole to boot, is finally getting his comeuppance.”

Holy guacamole, did she just say that? And then, the next day, when it was officially announced that Joe Jones was leaving CBS, Finke, with unabashed braggadocio, would write “Toldja!”

Finke was rude, crude and generally spot on. For, truth be known, I’d also heard many stories about what an asshole Joe Jones was. However, unlike Finke, it would never occur to me to write that in my story about him leaving CBS.

Finke wasn’t really a new kind of journalist. If anything, she was a throwback to years ago. It was as if she were channeling Cary Grant’s Walter Burns in “His Girl Friday,” and bringing him to life — with his honest meanness and cruelty, though without his wit to match.

Finke’s style was irresistible and readers showed up in droves. She left the Weekly and went out on her own.

Three years ago Jay Penske, the youngest son of auto-racing legend Roger Penske, bought Deadline.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Penske faced was how to monetize Deadline. Its readership among those in Hollywood was impressive. So clearly a no-brainer would be to get the studios to advertise on Deadline as they advertised in THR or Variety.

The problem was getting the studio executives to spend money on Deadline when they knew that at any moment they or one of their close colleagues — or bosses — might be unmercifully attacked by Finke on the site.

So the brilliant move made by Deadline once it came under the stewardship of Penske was to hire two of the most respected trade reporters in the business: Mike Fleming, who had been at Variety for years, to cover New York and some of the movie beat, and Nellie Andreeva, a veteran of THR, to cover TV. Later Deadline added even more reporters, such as the venerable entertainment business reporter David Lieberman, who had been at USA Today for nearly 20 years.

These were great hires — terrific reporters who knew their shit but who wouldn’t throw shit around in their stories like Finke did.

In other words, if you wanted CBS to start advertising on Deadline, CBS knew that the vast majority of TV stories on Deadline.com would now come from the pen of Andreeva. Good ol’ Nellie Andreeva, who CBS knew was tough, but fair — someone who really was interested in just the facts, ma’am — and who wouldn’t burn executives on the stake like Finke did. Likewise, Fleming and Lieberman and the other reporters are not Finke. She remains a singular, original stylist.

With Variety, Penske has bought, as Penske says in the press release announcing the deal, “one of the most recognized global media brands.” [By the way, it’s a good thing Finke is on vacation this week. She’d likely vomit after reading much of the press release about the deal, including lines such as “Since 1905, Variety has been the world’s premier entertainment news source.” Finke has spent much of the last decade criticizing and ridiculing the reportage in both Variety and THR.]

Variety has some outstanding people working for it. Brian Lowry is a critic par excellence, a man who brings astute insights into his observations. Veterans such as Cynthia Littleton, Dave McNary and Andy Wallenstein would be an asset to any publication.

But I’m not sure where they fit within a Deadline family that is already covering film and TV damn well. Clearly on the international side of the business, Variety can add both cache and ad dollars. Perhaps Deadline will use the Variety moniker to get into a lot more events, which could be lucrative.

If one has the belief that the Variety brand has been underexploited — especially on the consumer side — there are undoubtedly opportunities to be mined.

In its original acquisition of Deadline, Penske clearly saw a smart strategy that it could implement tactically and build ad sales.

I’d imagine that Penske has some equally smart ideas for Variety. Moving from Reed to Penske should mean that 107-year-old Variety can become a much more nimble player — a player that can take advantage of the changing habits of readers and advertisers in a 21st century environment.#

3 Comments

  1. Fascinating analysis, particularly to us East Coasters. I’m sorry to see the “old” Variety go, but happy to know that it will continue. I had a subscription to it when I was 12 years old, growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. The Wednesday weekly edition arrived by mail on Fridays. I was dazzled by the ads for movies, shows, nightclub entertainers, and tributes to Hong Kong movie executives. Every press release was printed somewhere, in corners. It was a delight. And there is something about that iconic logo that just doesn’t date. Thanks, Chuck Ross, for tying it all up and bringing us up to date.

  2. Excellent reporting, Chuck. Neil Stiles and his publisher are culpable for this mess!

  3. Interesting perspective …

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