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Oct 17, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Fox shuts down long-form programming unit

Fox is eliminating its long-form network programming unit — laying off all five people from the department — following the trend set by other broadcast networks that have drastically reduced their slate of made-for-TV movies and miniseries. A senior Fox executive said the cuts resulted from a declining ratings for long-form programs and the fact the network programs 35 percent fewer hours (18 hours in all) compared with the Big 3 broadcast networks.

Those pink-slipped were Marci Pool, executive VP of long-form programming; David Marko, VP of long-form; and Greg Goldman, manager of long-form. Two administrative assistants were also let go.

A Fox spokesman said production on “The Brady Bunch Goes to Washington,” headed for a third time by Gary Cole and Shelley Long, is still going forward and will be given an airdate to be announced later. Two other finished movies — “Rats” and “The Glow” — have finished production, with dates to be announced later as well.

Fox’s movie unit, taken over by Ms. Pool in June 2000 after she moved over from Fox Television Studios, had produced three other telefilms — “World War III,” “How to Marry a Billionaire” and “Black River” — that met mixed ratings returns.

“This was no reflection on the quality of their work,” said a Fox source. “Marci and David did a great job in shepherding these long-form projects, but long-form has been struggling on all of the networks and it just became budget and revenue issues for us to discontinue going on this course.”

Indeed, NBC and CBS led the charge this season in dropping one night of long-form TV presentations. Previously, ABC relegated much of its original long-form TV presentations to its Sunday “Wonderful World of Disney” showcase. Robert Iger, president and COO of The Walt Disney Co., recently hinted in press reports that ABC might even consider dropping its Saturday presentation of motion picture theatricals due to rapidly declining HUT levels (households using television) during the weekend.

Sony considering departure from TV production world: With word swirling that Sony corporate in Tokyo is pulling in the purse strings on its U.S. operations, Sony Pictures Entertainnent’s Columbia TriStar Television network production unit could be significantly downsized and potentially phased out, according to published reports and Hollywood talent agency sources.

The Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday that 50 to 70 employees at the Culver City, Calif-based TV studio could be laid off shortly. Hollywood agency insiders also say that it could also affect the future employment of up to several hundred other people (including major producer-writer talent) at production companies signed to exclusive deals with SPE and ColTriStar.

A corporate spokeswoman for Sony Pictures Entertainment declined comment on the nature of a pending restructuring of the studio’s TV operations and whether any layoffs are imminent.

The Japanese-owned studio, which has been at a significant disadvantage in not being able to own TV stations under current U.S. regulations, is similarly finding it hard to compete against the other vertically integrated studio-network conglomerates when it comes to guaranteeing distribution pipelines for TV programming.

Columbia TriStar has just seven shows in production currently for the broadcast networks, with “The King of Queens” (CBS) and “Dawson’s Creek” (The WB) among the longest-term players. Just last week, ABC canceled ColTriStar’s ratings-challenged “What About Joan” sitcom.

Agency sources with close contacts to ColTriStar say the studio is reportedly intent on phasing out first-run network series production but still looks to its lucrative domestic and international syndication arms to maintain licensing and sales of its current prime-time series and soap operas. However, independent producers signed to major talent deals — like Gavin Polone’s Pariah Productions — may be freed up to sign with other studios.

The expected downsizing of the studio comes in the wake of a $2 billion-plus sale of the Spanish-language Telemundo Network, which Sony jointly owned with Liberty Media Group, to General Electric’s NBC unit. In another cost-cutting move, Sony sold cable channel Game Show Network to Liberty Media. Recently, ColTriStar also balked at acquiring TV series from Michael Ovitz’s Artists Television Group, which had a distribution arrangement with the studio and since shut its door last summer.

NBC orders full season of ‘Scrubs’: NBC became the first network of the young 2001-02 season to give a freshman sitcom, “Scrubs,” a full-season’s order with a nine-episode pickup being extended Wednesday. The order carries “Scrubs” to a full complement of 22 episodes for this season.

The pickup comes on the heels of last night’s 9:30-to-10 p.m. (ET) airing of “Scrubs” posting a winning 5.8 rating/14 share in the key adults 18 to 49 demographic, according to final Nielsen Media Research national data. A key factor leading into “Scrubs'” pickup, said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, was its 92 percent retention out of lead-in “Frasier” (5.8/14) in the key demo.

Through three weeks, “Scrubs” has averaged a 6.1/14 in adults 18 to 49, making it one of the season’s top two freshman series, along with NBC’s “Inside Schwartz” (although the latter typically drops about 30 percent of its “Friends” lead-in on Thursday nights). “Scrubs'” strong early performance has also drawn industry speculation that the show should be used to prop up NBC’s ailing 8 p.m. Tuesday hour, where “Emeril” (2.6/7) and “Three Sisters” (3.1/8) flirted with season lows in adults 18 to 49 Tuesday night.

“‘Scrubs,’ coupled with ‘Frasier’ [is] the best comedy combination in television, and we are going to keep that tandem intact for the foreseeable future,” Mr. Zucker said. “Admittedly, ‘Emeril’ had a another tough outing and we’re keeping a watch on it, but we still think there is chance to grow sampling in the time period.”

The extension by NBC, first among the networks for a comedy this season, also came as good news for Disney-owned Touchstone Television, which operates under the ABC Television Entertainment Group umbrella.

CNN scrutinized for submitting bin Laden questions: CNN’s decision to submit written questions to Osama bin Laden has produced reactions from peer organizations that range from mild no-comments to vigorous disapproval.

CNN announced on air Tuesday that someone identified as a representative of al Qaeda, bin Laden’s terrorist organization, had asked CNN and Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language network that is the outlet of choice for bin Laden and Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, to submit questions that bin Laden might answer on videotape.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer explained at some length on the air that by taking al Qaeda up on its offer, CNN was not agreeing to preconditions or guaranteeing it would air all or any of the videotape. The top executives of all the network news organizations and the cable news channels had pledged last week to edit bin Laden statements and carry only what they deemed newsworthy and not propaganda.

CNN said it would make available to other news organizations any bin Laden videotape that might result from this interview by proxy.

ABC News refused to comment on the subject; CBS News and NBC News are taking a wait-and-see stance.

But there was a blistering reaction from Fox News, where a spokesman described CNN’s six prepared questions as something “a third-grader could have made up” and said bin Laden’s responses were almost certain to be predictable propaganda. “He’s had his answers formulated from Day 1,” the Fox spokesman said, echoing a widespread sentiment.

“It’s not journalism,” the Fox spokesman said. “If you can do a sit-down interview with bin Laden and ask follow-up questions, then you’d be practicing journalism.

“Why let a terrorist dictate this stuff. You wouldn’t let the White House do that.”

A spokeswoman for NBC News said NBC News policy does not allow questions to be submitted to an interviewee in advance. But she said it’s unclear whether that actua
lly describes what CNN is doing in sending off its list of questions.

A CNN spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment.

Emmys reset for Nov. 4 at L.A.’s Shubert: After two postponements in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, CBS and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences have set Sunday, Nov. 4 (8 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET) for the broadcast of “The 53rd Annual Prime Time Emmy Awards.” ATAS Chairman Bryce Zabel confirmed that the Emmy Awards will be held at the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles.

The Shubert, with seating capacity of 1,830 seats, is a quarter the size of the original venue, Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. Mr. Zabel said ATAS will end up having to provide refunds for an unspecified number of tickets but did not have a fix on the total financial impact from the show’s previous two cancellations.

Les Moonves, president and CEO of the CBS Television Network, said Ellen DeGeneres remains set to host the show. He also said Gary Smith, who has produced other Emmy shows and specials, will take over the executive producer chores for the show from Don Mischer, who was to be show runner for the canceled Oct. 7 event.

The Emmy telecast was originally schedule for Sunday, Sept. 16, just five days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Mr. Moonves also said there will not be a live bicoastal feed from New York, but he expressed the hope that most East Coast-based shows’ casts will attend the L.A. show.

Berger leaves Artists Management Group for CAA: In a major coup, Creative Artists Agency has hired veteran agent Alan Berger as head of the news and public affairs department, bringing with him such A-list news talent as Katie Couric and Larry King as clients under the CAA umbrella.

The defection of Mr. Berger comes as a blow to Michael Ovitz’s troubled Artists Management Group, which shuttered its television arm Artists Television Group last summer and exited other new media ventures recently. Mr. Berger headed up TV representation for Mr. Ovitz’s parent talent management company (AMG).

Mr. Berger, who has worked for International Creative Management and the William Morris Agency, also brings over talk show host Maury Povich and ABC News anchor Connie Chung as clients for CAA.

Having run ICM’s television department for 13 years (most notably as executive vice president), Mr. Berger brings varied experience in television packaging, talent representation and marketing to Beverly Hills-based CAA, where his services will be applied across the agency’s various departments.

“Alan understands the entertainment business from every imaginable angle,” said Lee Gabler, CAA co-chairman and head of the television division. “His experience and relationships perfectly match the direction in which CAA continues to advance, building bridges between varying fields of entertainment and media to maximize opportunities for our clients.”

Mr. Berger’s career began in the advertising world at Leo Burnett Co. in Chicago and later at Young & Rubicam in Los Angeles.

DTV hearing postponed due to anthrax scare on Hill: The anthrax scare on Capitol Hill expanded considerably Wednesday, prompting a temporary suspension of House activities and the cancellation — for the second time in two months — of a digital television hearing. At deadline, three staffers of Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., had tested positive for anthrax exposure. The senator is best known for his work on campaign finance reform with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Sen. Feingold has offices close to the mailroom of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., whose aides opened an anthrax-laden letter two days ago. Sen. Feingold said his employees never handled the letter or entered his colleague’s offices that day, so it’s unclear how they were exposed.

Meanwhile, 31 additional people, mostly staffers of Sen. Daschle but also a few Capitol Hill police, tested positive for exposure to the potentially lethal bacteria. The House of Representatives planned to recess later Wednesday through Monday so authorities could conduct an environmental sweep of congressional facilities for anthrax spores.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said spores have been detected in a Capitol Hill mailroom and could be in ventilation systems or underground passageways. Also Wednesday, a suspicious package was removed from one of his offices.

The hastily arranged recess triggered the cancellation of the digital television hearing scheduled for Thursday morning before the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, headed by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. The hearing was originally scheduled for Sept. 12 but was bumped until Thursday because of the terror attacks. It will be rescheduled again, but no date has been chosen. Lawmakers had planned to examine why the digital transition is moving more slowly than expected.

Late last week, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., warned industry executives that legislation may be needed if broadcast and cable providers don’t make progress on digital carriage and compatibility issues. Despite the House recess, the Senate planned to remain in session. But Senate office buildings were expected to be closed for part or all of the next two days. “We will not let this stop the work of the Senate,” Sen. Daschle told reporters Wednesday afternoon. None of the 31 employees exposed to anthrax in Daschle’s office have shown signs of infection. “The good news is that everybody will be OK,” he said, noting they’re all on antibiotics.

AOL Time Warner reports losses for Q3: AOL Time Warner’s news that its net loss has widened to $996 million (22 cents a share) from $902 million (21 cents a share) a year earlier received a lukewarm reception from industry analysts. Subscriptions, filmed entertainment, cable and synergies drove third-quarter revenues of $9.3 billion up 6 percent, beating lowered analyst expectations. Cash earnings (excluding one-time charges and goodwill amortization) grew 20 percent to $2.5 billion, or 30 cents a share. Merrill Lynch analysts Henry Blodget and Jessica Reif Cohen downgraded the company’s stock to “neutral” from “buy,” citing “concerns with underlying trends at AOL.”

“Revenue and EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) were weaker than expected, primarily as a result of a 12 percent sequential decline in advertising and commercial revenue,” they said in a report. “We are not optimistic about a near-term recovery in AOL’s [advertising and commercial] revenue.” The AOL service’s segment had third-quarter earnings of $742 million on $2.2 billion in revenues.

Although AOL subscriptions were strong, related revenue was weaker than expected. Cable system basic subscriber growth was flat, with a 6 percent sequential decline in digital subscriber ads.

The bright spot: High-speed data subscribers have mushroomed to 1.66 million. AOL Time Warner Chief Executive Officer Gerald Levin reiterated the company’s recently lowered year-end revenue and earnings estimates, along with its forecast for double-digit growth in 2002.

Fox wins 18 to 49 demo Tuesday night: Taking a one-day break from postseason baseball coverage, Fox’s entertainment series reinstated their control over the adults 18 to 49 and 18 to 34 demo ratings Tuesday night. Fox won in adults 18 to 49 (4.7 rating/12 share) and adults 18 to 34 (5.4/15), improving 9 percent and 11 percent week to week, according to preliminary Nielsen Media Research fast national data.

Fox’s 8 p.m.-to 9 p.m. (ET) comedy tandem of “That ’70s Show” and “Undeclared” posted top-ranked scores for the hour in adults 18 to 34 (5.9/17) and adults 18 to 49 (5.1/14). Individually, “That ’70s Show” improved 13 percent in Fox’s core adults 18 to 34 demo (5.4/15) and 8 percent in adults 18 to 49 (4.8/12) week to week. On another promising note for Fox, freshman lead-out “Undeclared” held 89 percent retention from its lead-in by posting a 4.8/12 in adults 18 to 49. The college comedy also had 94 percent retention in adults 18 to 34, drawing a 5.7/16 score.

At 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., Fox’s series finale of “Love Cruise: The Maiden Voyage” won the hour in adults 18 to 34
(5.0/13), improving 23 percent over its previous week’s average (4.3/12). In adults 18 to 49, where “Love Cruise” (4.3/10) finished second only to NBC’s “Frasier” (6.2/15) and “Scrubs” (5.7/13) for the hour, it improved 16 percent week to week.

Speaking of “Scrubs,” which improved 4 percent from last week and held 92 percent retention from “Frasier’s” ratings, NBC has ordered nine more episodes to give a full 22-episode order for the sitcom’s freshman season.

However, the 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. frame for NBC continues to be a source of concern. Freshman “Emeril” hit a new low in adults 18 to 49 (2.6/7) as it dropped 13 percent week to week. Companion cellar dweller “Three Sisters” managed 19 percent improvement in adults 18 to 49 (3.1/8) on its “Emeril” lead-in, but dropped 11 percent from last week.

Things were only slightly better for ABC, whose double run of “Dharma & Greg” from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. posted 3.4/9 and 3.9/10 scores in adults 18 to 49 — though the later episode, which was a repeat, still improved 50 percent on what canceled “What About Joan” did in the week-ago time slot (2.6/7). “Spin City” (3.9/9) and “Bob Patterson” (3.3/8) were third- and fourth-ranked in their 8 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. time slots.

The lead-in flow didn’t do much for ABC’s “Philly” (3.7/9), whose adults 18 to 49 score was down 3 percent from the previous week. ABC has already announced that come November “NYPD Blue” will be going into the 9 p.m. hour to provide a lead-in boost for “Philly.”

Meanwhile, CBS’s three-hour drama lineup — “JAG” (10.5/16),” “The Guardian” (10.5/16) and “Judging Amy” (11.2/18) — fired on all cylinders in households, which CBS won for the night (11.1/17), posting 3 percent growth week to week.

‘Smallville’ premieres with strong ratings for WB: The WB’s season premiere of the teen-oriented Superman prequel “Smallville” leapt tall buildings for the Frog Network in its initial 9 p.m.-to-10 p.m. (ET) Tuesday airing.

Even with a strong lead-in from “Gilmore Girls,” “Smallville” improved 48 percent on its lead-in by posting a robust 6.8 rating/10 share household average in Nielsen Media Research’s metered markets. “Smallville’s” opening score also posted 43 percent share improvement over the year-ago 7 share average and clobbered UPN’s “Roswell” (2.9/4) — a defector from The WB — by a 134 percent margin in the overnight markets.

In Nielsen’s preliminary fast national returns, WB researchers said the network had best-ever ratings in adults 18 to 34 (4.5), men 18 to 34 (5.0) and men 18 to 49 (3.9). Additionally, “Smallville” marked the best premiere ever for The WB in total viewers (8.4 million), households (5.4/8) and adults 18 to 49 (3.8 rating).

Back in the metered markets, “Gilmore Girls” opened with a solid 4.6/7 household average, matching UPN’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (4.6/7) in the crucial 8 p.m. Tuesday hour. “Gilmore Girls” also held even vs. year-ago and week-ago share levels (7 share), with the previous Tuesday featuring a two-hour season opener. “Buffy” similarly held even from week-ago averages, but has improved the frame by 75 percent from UPN’s year-ago 4 share average.

Walton, Jones join forces at NBC Sports: Bill Walton and Steve Jones, whose relationship extends back to their days as teammates on the 1975-76 Portland Trailblazers, will be the analysts working with Marv Albert on NBC Sports’ lead NBA team. The pair, who earned good reviews during the Eastern Conference finals last season, are succeeding Doug Collins, who is now coaching the Washington Wizards. Mr. Walton and Mr. Jones will debut at 6:30 p.m. (ET) Nov. 3 with the Philadelphia 76ers-at-Washington Wizards game, which was added to NBC’s lineup after Michael Jordan announced he was putting on a player’s uniform again.

CBS pulls anthrax-themed ‘Agency’: CBS has pulled this Thursday’s airing of an upcoming episode dealing with anthrax on its 10 p.m. drama “The Agency.”

The episode, titled “Anthrax,” had been scheduled to air on Oct. 11, but CBS pre-empted the show in order to carry President Bush’s prime-time press conference, which left only the season opener of “Survivor: Africa” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” intact on the schedule. Prior to that, the anthrax-themed episode was originally scheduled for broadcast Sept. 27 but was pulled in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

However, with an outbreak of anthrax incidents, including ones involving an assistant to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and the infant son of an ABC News producer, CBS felt it was too sensitive a subject to again schedule the anthrax for this Thursday.

“We certainly don’t want to do anything to add to the country’s fears about anthrax,” a CBS spokesman told the Associated Press late Tuesday. “As anthrax cases and public fears spread throughout the weekend and into Monday, it became clear we couldn’t broadcast this episode.”

Other CBS spokespeople had no word on whether the anthrax episode will be rescheduled for broadcast later in the season.

‘Mole’ on hiatus: ABC has decided to pull struggling reality series “The Mole II” from its 8 p.m.-to-9 p.m. (ET) Friday time period and put it on temporary hiatus for broadcast at an unspecified date later this season. An ABC spokesman said the network made the unusual move after it became apparent that up to 50 percent of the viewers of the original “Mole” series last season on Tuesday nights were not aware of the second incarnation’s airing on Fridays this season.

In its place this Friday, ABC plans to plug in an episode of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in the 8 p.m. hour. Sources close to ABC say the network is considering returning with a newsmagazine — either “20/20” or another edition of “PrimeTime” — to provide stronger lead-in flow to promising freshman drama “Thieves” and “Once and Again.”

The potential insertion of “20/20” in the 8 p.m. slot would be a marked departure from its previous longtime airing in the 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. Friday slot.

Over its three airings this season, “The Mole II” languished at a 2.1 rating/7 share average in adults 18 to 49, 3.7/7 in households and 5.5 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research national data.

ABC ordered 13 episodes of “Mole II,” which is produced by Stone Stanley Entertainment. Sources say the three previously aired episodes could re-air intact or be edited into a “compilation” episode when the show is rescheduled later in the season. It is expected that “Mole II” will get a second try on a different evening and could be restarted sometime before the February 2002 or May 2002 sweeps period.

(c) Copyright 2001 by Crain Communications