The Insider

May 21, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The grim sweeper circling CNN again
More layoffs are imminent at CNN, but this wave is unlikely to set off the same public ripple effect as the cutbacks in January, when a number of longtime and well-known on-air types were summarily sent packing.
For one thing, this round of downsizing will be effectively isolated in Atlanta, hometown of CNN. For another, the hatchet man is said to be taking aim at the CNN interactive unit.
And while those folks also bleed when axed, they don’t do it all over the pages of newspapers and magazines that cater to an audience more interested in celebrities than in folk such as themselves.
We’re everywhere
Scene: Outside NBC’s “30 Rock” headquarters in midtown Manhattan. The sun has disappeared behind the tall buildings, and out of the cellphoned, plugged-in throng leaving a party celebrating NBC’s upfront steps a man wearing a pale suit and with a shock of light-brown hair.
A heavyset woman in black quickly grabs at the plastic-coated tag hanging around her neck as if to obscure the name, because he is Aaron Sorkin, the creator and executive producer of “The West Wing,” and she is The Insider. She recently pondered in print whether seven days after pleading not guilty to possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms, pot and rock cocaine was too soon for Mr. Sorkin to personally accept a prestigious award for his good work on TV.
Woman (heard but not seen): “How are you doing?”
Mr. Sorkin (not missing a beat): “I would say I’m staying out of trouble, but obviously I’m not.”
Cut to face of the heavyset woman in black as she tries to figure the odds against having been in the right place at the right time to catch that exchange.
Hewitt’s `20/20′ insight
“60 Minutes” man Don Hewitt did not get out his hankie when he heard that next fall Barbara Walters and “20/20” are going to be booted out of their Friday night home so ABC can give pet project “Once and Again” a third chance to turn its critical raves into a sustaining viewership.
The outspoken genius behind the granddaddy of all TV newsmagazines has nothing against Ms. Walters or the magazine that has been her TV home for more than two decades.
Indeed, the point made by Mr. Hewitt, sounding somewhat like one of Tony Soprano’s henchmen, is that such brutal decisions are not personal, they’re business.
No matter how well-compensated TV giants such as he and Ms. Walters are, they’re all just employees of networks in a kill-or-be-killed business.
“Do they sometimes make bad mistakes? Yeah. They made a mistake with Bette Midler,” said Mr. Hewitt, referring to CBS’s divine misfire last season.
“You can’t take it all that personally,” he said. “They’re not out to make enemies, they’re in a business. So occasionally people’s feathers will get ruffled.”
“For years, God knows, they’ve treated Barbara like she was the queen of ABC-and she was,” Mr. Hewitt said.
“I’m sure whatever went through their minds it was not to damage Barbara,” he added, as always contrary to conventional wisdom. “It’s their network. It’s their candy store.”
So can Mr. Hewitt-who likes to say “60 Minutes” did for Sunday night what even God couldn’t do: created another hour of prime time-recall the last time his feathers got ruffled?
“Thirty-three years ago … Fred Friendly took me off the Cronkite news.”
Oh those cards at Viacom
Optimism about the upfront is in short supply this year-excepting most prominently at Viacom, where the positive vibe reaches all the way to the top.
“We’re going to surprise everybody in the upfront,” Sumner Redstone, Viacom’s chairman and CEO, said after UPN’s new-season presentation to the advertisers, during which the network touted its strong lineup of fantasy and sci-fi hours (partly courtesy of the suddenly “Buffy”-less WB).
“We’re going to get a bigger piece of the pie,” he said, delivering what has become the bottom-lining media empire’s party line.
Offered the opportunity to predict what that bigger share of upfront actually will be, Mr. Redstone replied, “If I had those special extraordinary powers, I might be on one of those UPN shows.”
At CBS’s post-upfront party at Tavern on the Green the night before, Mel Karmazin, Mr. Redstone’s shoot-from-the-lip president and chief operating officer, was giving a master class in how to fend off those he doesn’t want to speak to: At the first sign of an unwanted conversation coming into view, put feet on cruise control, switch to thousand-mile stare and as soon as, say, a reporter, utters name and publication, say, “Good for you.”