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Sassa on way out at NBC

Feb 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Speculation about NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa’s future with the network can now end.
Mr. Sassa has been quietly telling associates he will depart NBC by June, a timetable that would keep him aboard through development season and the upfront presentations of 2002-03 lineups to advertisers in May.
Mr. Sassa’s standing has been the subject of rumor for more than a year, and sources told Electronic Media that it is NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker who has been instrumental in keeping Mr. Sassa, whose contract expired last year, at the network this long.
It seems that what has the upwardly driven Mr. Sassa headed for the door nearly three years after he became NBC’s top entertainment executive is his frustration with being passed over when NBC News executive Andy Lack was chosen to run the network last May. Making matters worse for him were the frustrations that executives at the highest levels of NBC and parent company General Electric had with Mr. Sassa.
Jack Welch, who retired as GE’s tough chairman last year and had once been an effusive fan of Mr. Sassa, and Bob Wright, who was promoted from NBC president to NBC chairman and CEO and GE vice chairman last spring, had grown, in the words of one network executive familiar with the situation, “very irritated” with Mr. Sassa’s “management of the West Coast.” Mr. Sassa was named NBC Entertainment president in October 1998 and was promoted to West Coast president in May 1999 after Don Ohlmeyer stepped down as chairman of NBC West Coast.
Second-guessing at the top
And while NBC has remained the top network among 18- to 49-year-old viewers who command top advertising dollars, the 42-year-old Mr. Sassa has been dogged by public and private second-guessing. He hired and fired Garth Ancier as his top programmer in less than two seasons, was slow to jump on the lucrative reality bandwagon and said NBC had nothing to lose by turning over its Saturday nights to the XFL last winter.
“There was no traction,” said one network executive who has worked for Mr. Sassa and both respects and likes him.
In addition to the general perception that he has fumbled what many saw as golden opportunities for growth, he gained a reputation inside the network for resisting calls by cost-conscious GE and NBC to save money. He agreed to spend up to $30 million for a no-frills, three-run deal for “Shrek,” despite what sources said were directives from NBC headquarters to pull back on expensive movie acquisitions.
A spokesperson for NBC refused to comment for this story. Mr. Sassa, Mr. Zucker and NBC President and Chief Operating Officer Andy Lack were not available for comment.
However, people familiar with the situation say Mr. Zucker has not been anxious for Mr. Sassa to leave. The working relationship between the two young executives is described as comfortable, and the division of labor enables Mr. Zucker, 36, to remain bicoastal, commuting between Burbank, Calif., and New York, which his family continues to think of as home.
Most significantly, Mr. Zucker is immersed in the first development season for which he will take all credit-and blame-and he wants to be able to focus on the creative tasks involved in selecting, developing and scheduling the fall lineup, while leaving the business questions to Mr. Sassa, who is in the midst of negotiations to keep “Friends” in the network’s lineup.
Hollywood observers say NBC’s current West Coast structure is too expensive-Mr. Zucker is said to have a base salary of about $1 million with performance bonuses, and Mr. Sassa is presumed to have been earning even more-and they reason there is room for two people running a network entertainment division only if one of the people is weak.
“The go-to guy is Jeff,” said a longtime adviser to power players in Hollywood. “The go-to guy is not and never has been Scott.”
That may be harsh, but it also may be the unavoidable conclusion.
The expectation outside the network is that there will be a return to the Brandon Tartikoff-John Agoglia model, which would mean Mr. Zucker calling all the major shots and having a strong business executive, who commands respect from the creative community, reporting to him.
Speculation about who might be a candidate for the Agoglia-style role produces praise for NBC Enterprises chief Ed Wilson and West Coast Executive VP Marc Graboff (who helped negotiate “Survivor” and “CSI” deals before leaving CBS in 2000). Mr. Wilson and Mr. Graboff are both said to adore working for Mr. Sassa, to whom NBC Studios President Ted Harbert also reports.
As soon as Mr. Zucker, whose successful run as executive producer of the “Today” show made him a favorite of Mr. Wright and Mr. Welch, was named NBC Entertainment president at the end of 2000, he became the dominant presence.
Star falling
Gutsy, brash and combative, Mr. Zucker cranked up the reality machine and parried CBS’s assault on Must-See Thursday with ingenuity (supersized “Friends”) and bravado (matching wits with glib CBS topper Leslie Moonves, the TV executive every other TV executive measures his reputation against).
“Scott’s light, which wasn’t shining that bright by then, really dimmed,” said a supporter of Mr. Sassa, describing the executive as a bright and polarizing man who has had a hop-scotching career.
Mr. Sassa clinched his reputation as a forward-thinking, early-adopting, techno-savvy wunderkind during his second stint at Turner Broadcasting, where he launched seven cable channels during the cable boom of the ’90s and served as Ted Turner’s name-tagged surrogate in Hollywood and at Herb Allen’s annual convocation of business leaders at Sun Valley, Idaho.
“That was a big break,” said one image-savvy veteran of Hollywood.
Mr. Sassa also cemented his reputation as someone who would fearlessly strike up relationships with people whose brains he wanted to pick and with people whose connections could help him toward his goal of being a CEO.
From Turner to NBC
His nine years at Turner, during which he demonstrated his belief in the “paperless desk,” rank as his longest career stop and his greatest success.
When old friend Don Ohlmeyer helped bring Mr. Sassa, at the age of 38, to NBC in 1997 as president of the Television Stations Division, he had never run a TV station. But as was said in a Daily Variety announcement: “Sassa is seen as a candidate for a larger role at NBC down the road.”
“There was clearly a sense he was passing through,” said an NBC veteran who found Mr. Sassa to be a boss who was challenging, supportive and helpful.
Still, his time with the stations group may have opened his eyes to the view from the local level.
“I think he was affiliate-friendly in [whatever] ways he could be,” said Jack Sander, the Belo executive who is head of NBC’s affiliate advisory board. “I think people will be sorry to see him go.”
Home is where the artist is
Some of the dithering may be attributed to Mr. Sassa’s wish to stay in Hollywood, where his artist-wife Ellen and three children are ensconced in a striking mansion once owned by Vincent Price. The dramatic results of an extreme renovation to the house are on display in the February 2002 Architectural Digest, which doesn’t include shots of the screening room in which Mr. Sassa loves to entertain what are described as A-list executives and film and TV producers.
In November, the speculation should have stopped with trade reports that Mr. Sassa had “sealed a new deal” and “decided to stay on with the Peacock,” as Variety put it. The Hollywood Reporter said Mr. Sassa was “hammering out a new multiyear contract.”
“In NBC circles,” said a former NBC executive, “everybody knew it was inaccurate.”
Whether the papers were actively or passively misled is the subject of some debate, but informed sources said Mr. Sassa didn’t sign anything. Peers who offered Mr. Sassa congratulations after reading the reports said he did not refute the notion that he was sticking around.
Indeed, in some high network circles there lingered, as late as last week, confusion abo
ut whether Mr. Sassa was staying or going. But network Kremlinologists said his absence from January’s invitation-only GE executive retreat to Boca Raton, Fla., was telling and that he was also diminished by his failure to appear on the most recent Entertainment Weekly power list. They added that Mr. Lack’s involvement in entertainment-even to the extent of his looking at a lot of casting tapes seen by Mr. Zucker-leaves no role for Mr. Sassa to play other than odd man out.