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May 2, 2001  •  Post A Comment

WGA talks resume

Negotiators for the Writers Guild of America and the Hollywood studios resumed their marathon contracts talks Wednesday afternoon, with talent agency sources claiming that two groups may be close to hashing out a deal. Hopes are pinned on a deal being done, since the WGA has held back member scribes from officially setting up picket lines.

“I think we’re going to dodge a bullet,” said one Hollywood talent agency source, who requested anonymity. “Right now, we’re hearing that they’re working on the language and meeting closer to twain certain issues,” particularly the thorny demands over additional residual compensation from the domestic broadcast and cable networks, international TV markets and new media.

Some talent agency sources feel that the WGA is indeed close to forging a broad-based agreement with the studio-led Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers group on residual and creative issues. That could potentially set a favorable tone for pending contract negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, whose current contracts are set to expire June 15 and Nov. 1, respectively.

That optimism, though, must also be weighed by the sense of urgency being brought to bear by the talent agencies to avert a strike, since those agencies’ star clients, writers, producers, directors — and the agents themselves — stand to lose billions of dollars in income from a potential industrywide work stoppage.

In fact, one senior-level source with the AMPTP camp insisted that “all of the issues are still on table,” and if the two sides were that close to an agreement, “they wouldn’t have gone home for the night,” when talks broke off at 2:45 a.m. (PT) this morning. The AMPTP source also labeled a Los Angeles Times report — dealing with reported concessions the WGA may have gained on cable residuals and video on demand — as “nothing but irresponsible speculation, rumor and innuendo.”

Talks on a new contract began in February but broke off March 1 after each side accused the other of making unrealistic demands.

The WGA has estimated that its proposals for additional domestic and foreign residuals compensation would cost the studios a little over $100 million over the three years of the new contract term (through May 2003). But the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers countered with its own study claiming it could cost the major studios more than $225 million and possibly hundreds of millions more if the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists were to extract similar increases.

The AMPTP and WGA have come under increased pressure to reach a new three-year contract and avert a strike in a full-court lobbying effort by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. The mayor recently commissioned an economic impact study, which claimed that Los Angeles’ TV and motion picture industry could realize a loss of almost 90,000 jobs and $6.9 billion in revenue from a potential WGA strike shutting down production from May to October.

A work stoppage could also put a severe dent in the amount of advertising revenue the six broadcast networks could take from this month’s upfront ad market, which totaled slightly less than $8 billion for the fourth quarter of this season.

Further compounding the angst throughout the Hollywood creative ranks is similar contract talks the studio-network media combines will have to hold with SAG and AFTRA. Those two acting unions (counting 135,000 members in total), however, are expected to work in tandem on the contract negotiations — similar to the way they worked cooperatively during the six-month commercials strike against advertisers earlier this year.

WGA and AMPTP officials have said the talks could be extended until Friday or early next week — before writers would have time to actually set up picket lines.

FCC set to consider cross-ownership rule: The Federal Communications Commission is slated to launch rulemaking proceedings May 10 to consider axing a regulation that bars broadcasters from acquiring daily newspapers in their markets.

Re-examining the need for the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule has been a priority for FCC Chairman Michael Powell. But the rulemaking, according to a source, is expected to permit comment on a range of options, including whether to ax the regulation altogether, modify it or keep it on the books.

Sorkin denies drug charges: Aaron Sorkin, creator and executive producer of NBC’s hit series “The West Wing,” pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of possessing hallucinogenic mushrooms, marijuana and rock cocaine.

Mr. Sorkin, 39, entered his plea at a hearing before a Burbank,Calif., court commissioner, who continued the case for a June 4 court date. The court commissioner said it will be determined whether Mr. Sorkin, who is free on $10,000 bail, is eligible for a drug diversion program.

Mr. Sorkin was arrested at Burbank Airport on April 15 after security officers found what they said was a bag of drugs in his luggage. He has been charged with two felony counts of drug possession (mushrooms and rock cocaine) and a single misdemeanor count (marijuana).

Mr. Sorkin’s defense attorney, Steve Sitkoff told the court Wednesday that Mr. Sorkin “[Hopes] that his actions do not affect or reflect upon those with whom he works, cares for and respects.” “Mr. Sorkin is genuinely humbled by the situation he is facing. He and his family are taking all necessary steps to ensure that he deals with the legal and personal matters at hand appropriately.”

The maximum penalty for either felony drug count is three years in prison. But officials for the Burbank district attorney’s office said Mr. Sorkin, as a first-time offender, will probably be eligible for a diversion program and could avoid any incarceration.

In 1995, Mr. Sorkin had been previously treated at the Hazelden Institute in Minnesota for rehabilitation from a publicly acknowledged cocaine addiction. Mr. Sorkin had also taken part in a high-profile charity benefit earlier this year on behalf of a local drug rehabilitation program.

Cronin game for new cable post: Rich Cronin has been named the new president and CEO of Game Show Network, the niche cable network devoted exclusively to game shows and interactive game play. Mr. Cronin, who was the founding president of TV Land and is the former head of both Fox Family Channel and Fox Kids Network, replaces Michael Fleming, who was Game Show Network’s founding president.

Mr. Cronin will have access to a library of 25,000 episodes from more than 100 game shows — including such perennials as “Jeopardy!” and “The Match Game” — for his initial stunting and promotional efforts, which he said would be similar to those he mounted at TV Land and Fox Family.

But his primary mandate is to develop “leading-edge interactive” games that will attract the new generation that has grown up playing interactive games on the Internet and on such in-home platforms as the Sony PlayStation.

“Games are huge on broadcast [television],” Mr. Cronin said, and game shows have been hits on MTV (“Remote Control”) and Nickelodeon (“Double Dare”). “In my dreams, I’d love to have ‘Survivor’ or ‘Millionaire,'” he added, “but that’s only a dream.”

Budgetary constraints keep those dreams from becoming a reality for now, although Game Show Network’s prospective original programming will be budgeted “in sync” with other cable networks,” Mr. Cronin said. During the next half year he intends to develop 15 to 20 interactive pilots, and his first program slate should be on the network by the fourth quarter or the first quarter of next year.

Game Show Network, which was founded at the end of 1994, has been jointly owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment, headed by Len Grossi, and Liberty Digital, headed by Lee Masters, since February of this year. Digital is a new media company focused on developing interactive TV technology and programming. Mr. Cronin, who began his career in cable television in 1981, will report to a joint SPE/Liberty management committee.

GM, News Corp. talk abou
t consolidating units: Discussions are proceeding between General Motors and News Corp. about combining GM’s Hughes Electronics Corp. satellite-distribution subsidiary and News Corp.’s Sky Global Networks satellite-distribution subsidiary into a single globe-girdling behemoth.

Hughes brings DirecTV, with about 10 million subscribers in the United States, to the table, and Sky is a presence on four continents — Asia, Australia, Europe and South America.

As always with a potential combination such as this, operational control is one of the key outstanding issues. The head of News Corp., Rupert Murdoch, who is usually a reliable source, has said he would not do any transaction that didn’t vest that control in his hands. Control is also a factor on the other side of the table in these talks: Hughes CEO Michael Smith is known as well for being an executive with an affinity for keeping the levers of power firmly in his own hands.

In a statement confirming that the talks are going forward, GM seemed to allude to that and other deal-breaker issues, saying, “There can be no assurance that the parties will reach an agreement regarding such a transaction, or, that if an agreement is reached, any conditions to the transaction would be satisfied or that a transaction would be consummated.”

According to several reports, Mr. Murdoch’s ultimate goal is to merge Sky and DirecTV, then spin off the combined company.

Mr. Murdoch recently put a formal proposal before the GM board, according to the reports, that would give News Corp. a 30 percent stake in the new satellite entity — down from the 35 percent that Mr. Murdoch was said to have proposed originally, but still enough to put him in day-to-day charge. Other potential minority investors in the new satellite company, according to the reports, include Microsoft and the Liberty Media Group, headed by cable veteran John Malone.

GM, News Corp. and DirecTV spokespersons did not reply to requests for comment on the talks. A spokesperson for John Malone declined to comment on “speculation.”

Audio of 1984 executions to be aired: ABC News’ “Nightline” will broadcast audio recordings Wednesday night of two 1984 executions in Georgia’s electric chair. The broadcast is in collaboration with radio producer David Isay and New York public radio station WNYC.

Keenan exits CNN for Fox: Terry Keenan has left CNN, where she has been a highly regarded financial correspondent in two different tours of duty, and is headed for Fox News. A key factor in her decision to switch channels reportedly was her determination to anchor and the diminishing opportunity to do that at CNN. She had been anchoring “Moneyline Weekend Edition” and the first hour of “Street Sweep” on CNNfn weekdays but was more prized for her reporting for “Moneyline” and other shows.

Ms. Keenan is expected to do some weekday anchoring on Fox News as well as presiding over the weekend business news show Fox is developing with Forbes magazine.

Ms. Keenan first joined the CNN business news team in 1986, left in 1995 to go to CNBC and returned to CNN in 1997.

Markets correspondent and anchor Rhonda Schaffler will become anchor of weekend “Moneyline,” while continuing to anchor weekday’s “Market Call” and report from the New York Stock Exchange.

O’Brien heads to CNN: Former ABC News correspondent Tim O’Brien has been signed by CNN Business News and CNNfn to report on money matters — particularly for “Moneyline With Lou Dobbs” — from his home base of Washington.

Retro ads boost Fox in ratings win: Airing 1970s commercials in its 8 p.m. Tuesday run of “That ’70s Show” appeared to pay good viewer dividends as Fox won its fourth consecutive night of the May sweeps in the key adults 18 to 49 demographic. Starting with last Saturday, Fox has stretched its nightly adults 18 to 49 wins through Tuesday night.

Marking the sixth night of the April 26-May 23 May sweeps, Fox posted 12 percent week-to-week growth at a 4.8 rating/14 share in adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen Media Research fast affiliate data. Fox held a narrow 4 percent victory margin over ABC (4.6/13), which was down a slight 2 percent week to week.

Meanwhile, backed by strong original-episode performances from “Frasier” and “Three Sisters” in the 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. hour, NBC’s third-ranked 4.2/12 average in adults 18 to 49 marked 20 percent growth week to week. CBS’s prime-time lineup posted a 3.0/8 average, down 6 percent from the previous week.

Fox’s retro commercial stunt with the 8 p.m.-to-8:30 p.m. airing of “That ’70s Show” won the time slot at a 5.3/17 in adults 18 to 49, registering 18 percent growth. A second run of “That ’70s Show” (6.0/17), filling in for “Titus,” went one step better by improving 14 percent on its own lead-in and 36 percent over the previous week’s average in the 8:30 p.m. time slot.

But Fox’s 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. lead-out, “Dark Angel,” (3.9/10) dropped 33 percent from the lead-in half-hour and dipped a slight 5 percent week to week.

Affected even more in the 9 p.m. hour were ABC’s “Dharma & Greg” (4.4/12) and “What About Joan” (4.4/11), which dropped 19 percent and 8 percent, respectively, week to week. A major factor in their dip was NBC’s robust adult 18 to 49 returns from “Frasier” (7.2/19) and “Three Sisters” (5.2/13), which reclaimed victory in the hour with respective 53 percent and 44 percent increases from repeats airing the previous week.

ABC’s “NYPD Blue” (5.5/16) held on to the 10 p.m. hour, staying even on a weekly basis in adults 18 to 49. NBC’s newsmagazine “Dateline” (4.2/12) made a strong second-place showing, increasing 20 percent on its previous week’s performance.

DBS delivery up: According to Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) analysis of Nielsen Media Research data for February, a record 12.4 percent of American households receive cable programming via non-cable delivery systems. That penetration is up from 12.1 percent in November 2000. Direct broadcast satellite delivery, the largest method of alternate delivery, has grown from 9.6 percent in November to 10.3 percent in February.

“Advertisers who buy cable locally need to know that local cable systems’ delivery has significantly eroded. In fact, 123 markets have [alternate delivery system] penetration of 15 percent or more,” said Harold Simpson, vice president of research and development for TVB.

‘Buffy’ ratings sink: In another potentially bad omen for UPN — which has acquired the fall 2001 broadcast rights to The WB’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — the drama airing on the Frog Network dipped 13 percent in share Tuesday night from the previous week at a 4.6 rating/7 share household average in Nielsen’s metered markets. But 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. (ET) companion series “Angel” (4.4/7) held 93 percent of its “Buffy” lead-in and increased 17 percent in share week to week.

Although flat week to week, The WB’s 4.5/7 in metered households for its 8 p.m.-to-10 p.m. rotation still held a 137 percent margin of victory over UPN’s (1.9/3) struggling “Chains of Love”-led Tuesday lineup. “Chains” remained flat week to week at a 2.4/4 in households while already canceled drama “All Souls” dropped 38 percent of its lead-in to remain flat at a 1.5/2 metered average.

Clayson keynotes event: Jane Clayson, co-anchor of “The Early Show” on CBS, will be the keynote speaker at American Women in Radio and Television’s May 31 luncheon, at which the 2001 Gracie Allen Awards will go to 40 winners and 18 honorable mentions representing entertainment, commercials, feature reporting and other genres of programming. The lunch, which will be held at New York’s Plaza hotel, will be emceed by WABC-TV anchor Roz Abrams.

Among the national winners are Rosie O’Donnell for her eponymous talk show, HBO’s “Sex and the City,” Debbie Allen for producing “Cool Women” for WE: Women’s Entertainment, and CBS’s “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

Showtime Next finds ‘Wasteland’: “Wasteland,” the 20-something ensemble series from “Dawson’s Creek” creator Kevin Williamson that briefly aired on ABC in fall 1999, has been picked up by Showtime Next, the Viacom unit’s recently launched multiplex channel target
ed at 18- to 24-year-olds.

Thirteen episodes of the series were completed, but only three aired before it was pulled by the Alphabet Net. “Wasteland,” which follows a group of young friends living in Manhattan, will begin its 13-episode run in June. If the series, from Outerbanks Entertainment in association with Miramax Television, catches on with its target demo, Showtime has the right to move it over to its other networks as well.

History launches ‘Ship’: The reality craze has finally put out to sea with “The Ship,” an upcoming reality special from the History Channel and the BBC that will place the usual collection of intrepid volunteers aboard a replica of an 18th-century sailing vessel, which then will spend six weeks sailing the South China Sea.

Would-be sailors, experienced or not, with a taste for adventure and hardtack are asked to send a 500-words-or-less statement telling about themselves and their reasons for wanting to sign on to: The Ship, c/o History Channel Viewer Relations, 235 E. 45th St., New York, NY 10017. The show will film this fall for an expected 2002 debut.

Beware though: This exact replica of a tall ship will be cramped and have low ceilings, with only one 18th century “toilet” for the entire crew.

Parsons heads Social Security panel: President Bush on Wednesday named Richard Parsons, AOL Time Warner co-chief operating officer, to a presidential commission to reform the nation’s Social Security system.

Newhart leaves project with Sisqo: In what may be an indication of a generation gap between the stars, longtime sitcom vet Bob Newhart has pulled out of an untitled NBC comedy pilot co-starring rapper Sisqo. “There just appeared to be a real difference in minds between Newhart, Sisqo and the producers, to put it mildly,” said one talent agency source close to the show.

There was no immediate word on the status of the NBC pilot, which was shot April 1 and is being screened by Peacock Network programmers in advance of NBC’s upfront fall 2001 schedule presentation May 14 in New York. The producers of the show, from NBC Studios and Viacom-owned Big Ticket Television, have yet to decide whether to recast Mr. Newhart’s part or leave it as a guest-starring stint in the pilot episode.

In the pilot, Sisqo plays a Baltimore ballpark vendor-turned-hero who lands a part in a real-life TV show opposite Mr. Newhart, who plays a TV legend. The last major TV role for Mr. Newhart, 71, came in the short-lived CBS sitcom “George & Leo” (1997-98). He has had longtime starring roles in “The Bob Newhart Show” (CBS, 1972-78) and “Newhart” (CBS, 1982-90) and “Bob” (CBS, 1992-93).

Gervase ‘Turns’ to role on soap: Gervase Peterson, one of the cast members of CBS’s original “Survivor,” will appear in the long-running CBS daytime drama, “As the World Turns,” on May 8 and 9. Mr. Peterson will play the role of Leo Thompson, the biological father of Curtis Thompson (Chad Tucker),whom Dr. Ben Harris (Peter Parros) is trying to adopt.

Peterson spent two days taping his scenes in the show’s Brooklyn studio. While this marks his first foray into daytime television, Mr. Peterson made his acting debut on UPN’s “The Hughleys” and has also been featured in an episode of CBS’s “Nash Bridges” and a Nick at Nite parody of “Three’s Company,” in which he played Jack Tripper.

Catherine Mackay heads Pearson TV unit: Pearson Television has promoted Catherine Mackay, previously president of Pearson Television Enterprises, to the new position of CEO of Pearson Television International and Enterprises. Ms. Mackay will also take on the role of deputy CEO of Pearson Television’s North American division, which syndicates the game shows “Family Feud,” “To Tell the Truth” and “Card Sharks.”

And David Lyle has been promoted to the new position of president of entertainment for Pearson Television North America and will oversee all Pearson entertainment programming in the United States.

Both announcements were made Wednesday by Tony Cohen, CEO of the RTL Group’s Production Businesses, who takes on the newly assumed role of CEO of Pearson Television North America. Ms. Mackay will be based in New York, and Mr. Lyle will be based in the company’s Santa Monica, Calif., office, and both will report to Mr. Cohen.

Pearson Television International and Enterprises is a new operating unit that will merge and handle all international sales, Internet, wireless, broadband and ancillary activities. Pearson Television is the global production and distribution division of RTL Group, Europe’s largest television and radio company.

On April 7, 2000, German media giant Bertelsmann AG, GBL/Electrafina and Pearson agreed to merge to CLT-UFA and Pearson into Audiofina. After the approval of the merger by the European Commission on June 30, and admission by the U.K. listing authority, the new group was renamed RTL Group. After an initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange, RTL’s largest shareholders are Bertelsmann (37 percent), Groupe Bruxelles Lambert (30 percent, a stake that Bertelsmann has agreed to buy), and Pearson (22 percent).

In 1996, Pearson originally acquired All American Communications, including its “Baywatch” syndicated action series franchise and the Mark Goodson Television library of more than 1,000 game show formats, to gain a large presence in the North American television market.

(c) Copyright 2001 by Crain Communications