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Jan 13, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Posted Monday, Jan. 13.

Curtains for VNS

As expected, the Voter News Service has been dissolved by vote of its partners, who had been embarrassed by snafus in the collection of vote totals and exit polling information in the last two national elections. The staff that had worked for executive director Ted Savaglio was given the official word Monday.

The partners — CNN, the Associated Press and the news divisions of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — issued a group statement that said they are “collectively reviewing a number of strong options for how to provide the tabulation of the national vote count, as well as station and national exit polls for the 2004 elections.”

Among the options is asking Warren Mitofsky, the veteran of many years of network elections coverage and political polling, to in effect serve as the new collective for the news organizations who would split the cost of having him build an system of conducting exit polls. CNN had Mr. Mitofsky under contract last November, when the partners were sent scrambling for their separate polling arrangements because at the last minute the VNS computer system — despite millions of dollars of overhauling after the 2000 presidential election led to multiple miscalls — was giving off numerous signs it was not going to work on Election Night 2002.

CNN reportedly has Mr. Mitofsky under contract for 2004, but has indicated it could dissolve that contract if the partners chose to put their faith and money in him.

Isaacson departing CNN for Aspen Institute: CNN News Group Chairman Walter Isaacson will be leaving the all-news network in May to become president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. He announced his resignation, which had been a closely guarded secret, to CNN staffers Monday afternoon.

Mr. Isaacson, who was largely identified with the Time magazine culture for more than two decades before taking over CNN in July 2001, will be succeeded in the top job by Jim Walton, who has been the well-regarded president and chief operating officer of the CNN News Group. Mr. Walton, an Emmy winner who joined CNN in 1981, a year after it launched, is, in the words of one CNN insider, a “logical choice.”

No changes are expected in the role of top news-gathering executive Eason Jordan or Teya Ryan, VP and general manager of CNN/U.S., according to executives, including Turner Broadcasting Chairman Jamie Kellner, who said during a late-afternoon conference call that “We are very happy with the performance of our executive team.”

The 52-year-old Aspen Institute describes itself as “a global forum for leveraging the power of leaders to improve the human condition,” has a campus in Aspen, Colo., headquarters in Washington, and an international retreat on 1,000 historic acres along the Wye River on the Eastern shore of Maryland.

Mr. Isaacson said he had not sought the job but had realized it was “perfect” for him soon after hearing about it at a dinner in December. Not long after Mr. Isaacson took over CNN, a job that had him shuttling between New York and CNN headquarters in Atlanta, rumors started that running CNN was not as fun a job as he’d expected it to be. The rumors quieted down last year, when it appeared that Mr. Isaacson was unlikely to be successful in his quest for a job that would take him back into the Northeastern power structure of AOL Time Warner.

More recently Mr. Isaacson fostered the impression that he and David Westin, who is president of ABC News, had worked out a plan to resolve leadership questions should the two news organizations merge, as had been discussed by their respective parent organizations last year. However, even merger talk quieted down after AOL Time Warner chief Richard Parsons said the issues involved were so complex that the “hold button” on talks had been pushed.

Mr. Kellner said Monday that the subject is not likely to be reconsidered for another six weeks or so and then only based on whether such a merger makes long-term sense for CNN.

There were denials of any link between embattled AOL Chairman Steve Case’s announcement over the weekend that he will step down in May and the departure of Mr. Isaacson, whose timing was dictated by a desire to be around as the Bush administration mobilizes for a potential war with Iraq.

Mr. Isaacson said Monday that he had not been pressured to leave, but he did concede he hadn’t taken as easily to the management of a TV news empire as he had hoped. Both Mr. Kellner and Mr. Isaacson fended off suggestions that in being surpassed by Fox News Channel in the ratings, CNN had stumbled on Mr. Isaacson’s watch.

“Our audience now is 40 percent higher than it was in 2000, so I reject the premise that we are getting hurt,” said Mr. Isaacson. That moved Fox News to call out viewership data showing that CNN had led Fox News Channel by 5 percent in prime time in the second quarter of 2001, but Fox’s rapid rise in viewers now has it cruising 42 percent ahead of CNN in prime time, despite CNN’s increases.

The data was accompanied by a statement from Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, with whom Mr. Isaacson has waged a headline war over everything from ratings and political tilt to whether Paula Zahn was free to entertain a CNN offer before her Fox contract was up and which network offers more solid journalism.

“Walter Isaacson is an excellent journalist with enormous talent who made a smooth transition from the print to the television medium. He is a fine competitor and friend whose knowledge of the news business raised the bar for the industry. We wish him well in the next phase of an already distinguished career,” Mr. Ailes said.

Mr. Isaacson reiterated Monday that CNN had kept its “eye on the mission of being a real reported network” and, “We’re the most believable because we have real reporting.”

He said he looks forward to being able to focus on writing again when he takes over the institute.

ABC can air ‘Celebrity’: A Manhattan federal court judge Monday denied CBS an injunction to keep ABC from airing the series “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here,” which CBS claimed was too similar to “Survivor” and infringing on its copyright.

“I find the concept and the feel of the two shows to be different,” U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska was quoted as saying by Reuters News Service, which also reported that Ms. Preska said that ABC network had shown that forcing it to cancel “Celebrity” would leave a hole in its programming during sweeps and hurt its relationship with affiliates.

CBS filed the suit in November.

Orlando to occupy NAB government relations post: The National Association of Broadcasters has named John Orlando acting chief of its government relations operations. Mr Orlando, a senior VP for the association, succeeds Jim May, an NAB executive VP who resigned to assume command of the Air Transport Association.

At a meeting Sunday of the association’s board in La Quinta, Calif., Eddie Fritts, NAB president and CEO, said he plans to decide on Mr. May’s permanent successor within months. Mr. Orlando was previously a lobbyist for CBS and an aide to Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.

Also during yesterday’s session, the NAB board announced that it would not challenge the Federal Communications Commission’s new equal employment opportunity regulations. In addition, the NAB decided to postpone a vote on an industry request to fund an independent research lab for digital broadcasting until at least Wednesday morning to permit further discussion.

Next ‘Survivor’ pits men against women: When “Survivor: The Amazon” premieres on Feb. 13, viewers are going to see something a little bit different: a battle of the sexes. For the first time in six editions, the teams have been divided into men vs. women, something creator and executive producer Mark Burnett called a big risk. The show for the first time will also include a deaf castaway.

Mr. Burnett, during a session at the Television Critics Association press tour, said he is contracted for as many “Survivor” editions as CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves would like. He also said it would be hard to believe that there wouldn’t be a seventh editio
n, but he didn’t know yet whether there would be an eighth.

The men’s tribe, called Tambaqui , consists of Ryan Aiken, a 25-year-old model/actor from Ellicott City, Md.; Alex Bell, a 32-year-old trainer from Los Angeles; Rob Cesterino, a 24-year-old computer projects coordinator from Wantagh, N.Y.; Dave Johnson, a 23-year-old rocket scientist from Pasadena, Calif.; Butch Lockley, a 50-year-old middle school principal from Olney, Ill.; Daniel Lue, a 27-year-old tax accountant from Houston; Roger Sexton, a 56-year-old VP at a construction company from Valencia, Calif.; and Matthew Von Ertfelda, a 33-year-old bar and restaurant designer from Washington.

The women’s team, Jaburu, is made up of Deena Bennett, a 35-year-old deputy district attorney from Riverside, Calif.; Jeanne Hebert, a 41-year-old marketing director from North Attleboro, Mass.; Janet Koth, a 47-year-old motivational speaker and travel consultant from Manchester, Mo.; Shawna Mitchell, a 23-year-old from Los Angeles who works for an outdoor retail company; Jenna Morasca, a 21-year-old swimsuit model/college student from Bridgeville, Pa.; Christy Smith, a 24-year-old children’s adventure guide from Basalt, Colo., who is deaf; Heidi Strobel, a 24-year-old physical education and health teacher from Eldon, Mo.; and Joanna Ward, a 31-year-old school guidance counselor from Orangesburg, S.C.

New Line to offer movie pack at NATPE: New Line Television has partnered with Lions Gate Entertainment on “Thrill Ride,” a 20-title movie package to be offered at the National Association of Television Program Executives convention next week.

Fifteen films are from the New Line banner, including “Friday After Next,” “All About the Benjamins,” “American History X,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Jason X,” “Don Juan DeMarco,” “Pump Up the Volume, “Ripley’s Game,” “Cheats,” “Unconditional Love,” “Aces Iron Eagle III,” “Cherish,” “Live Wire” and “Carmen: A Hip Hopera.”

Lions Gate’s five films in the package are “Gods and Monsters,” “Swimming With Sharks,” “Double Whammy,” “Eve’s Bayou” and “The Wash.”Moonves: ‘CBS is thriving’: CBS Television President and CEO Leslie Moonves painted a positive picture of the network in a midseason report at the Television Critics Association press tour today.

“CBS is thriving,” he said, noting that CBS is the most-watched network and the only one of the Big 4 to be up in households and viewers. He said the network achieved one of its preseason goals to strengthen the 10 p.m. hour, with “CSI: Miami” and “Without a Trace” increasing their time slots’ ratings by double-digit percentages. Mr. Moonves also said advertising costs-per-thousand in the first quarter are up 15 percent to 30 percent over upfront prices.

For next season, CBS is developing a spinoff of its Tuesday military drama “JAG” that will focus on the naval criminal investigation services, Mr. Moonves said. The show will have an entirely new cast. He also announced that “Touched by an Angel” will end its nine-year run in May, likely with a two-hour finale.

The network set premiere dates for midseason series “My Big Fat Greek Life” and the latest installment of “Survivor.” “My Big Fat Greek Life” will premiere Monday, Feb. 24, at 9:30 p.m. (ET), sandwiched between hits “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “CSI: Miami.” The series will then move to its permanent time slot of Sundays at 8 p.m. leading into “Becker” on Sunday, March 2.

“Survivor: The Amazon” will premiere Thursday, Feb. 13, with a 90-minute special, followed by a 90-minute edition of “CSI.”

Reality programming continued to be the talk of the press tour. Mr. Moonves said reality programming is probably at its zenith right now and by next fall all the networks will have overdone it. “Everyone’s looking for a quick fix,” he said.

A real-life version of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” in which a real family from a rural area would be given the chance to live in a Beverly Hills mansion, is still in discussion stages and a family has not been found yet to participate, Mr. Moonves said.

Responding to criticism that the show would demean poor people, Mr. Moonves said the show is supposed to be a fish-out-of-water concept. “It wasn’t our intent to offend everybody. I’m sorry if we have,” he said.

While the performance of the CBS Sunday movie has been hit or miss this season, CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem said she expects to have the Sunday movie on the schedule next year and that it’s just a question of choosing the right titles.

Freshman dramas “Without a Trace” and “CSI: Miami” and the sitcom “Still Standing” are likely to be back next year. “If I were a betting man, I’d put a few bucks on that,” Mr. Moonves said. He also said that the network is currently negotiating to renew its top comedy, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” whose contract is up after this season. He said he expects “Raymond” to be back next year.

“Hack” and “Presidio Med,” which will debut in a new Friday night time slot this week, appear to be on the bubble for renewal. As for how the network decided to give the ratings-challenged “Presidio Med” another shot but to cancel “Robbery Homicide Division,” which had garnered much critical praise but few viewers, Mr. Moonves said the problem was that the network didn’t know where to put “Robbery Homicide Division” on the schedule to give it a better shot. Had it been moved to one of the network’s few available slots on Wednesdays at 10 p.m., it would have competed for a similar audience against NBC’s “Law & Order” juggernaut. Mr. Moonves said the network thought “Presidio Med” at least had a chance to work on Fridays. “It was more of a fastball down the middle,” he said.

Sheingold leaves Viacom station group: Richard Sheingold has left the Viacom Television Stations Group to “pursue other opportunities.” He is succeeded by Julio Marenghi, whose promotion to president of Viacom Station Sales and executive VP of sales for the Viacom Television Stations Group was announced Monday by group President Fred Reynolds.

Mr. Marenghi, a native of Boston who held several sales positions in San Francisco before coming back to the East Coast in the late ’80s, joined Viacom and was promoted to senior VP of sales for the station group in March 2002 from WNBC-TV, New York, where he was named sales manager in 1998. He was named VP and station manager of WCBS-TV, New York, in July 2002.

X Games VIII sponsorships sold out: ESPN has sold out its gold and associate sponsorships for Winter X Games VII, the semi-annual action and extreme sports competition that appeals to young male demos. First-time sponsors include Levi’s, Lorillard Tobacco’s Youth Smoking Prevention Program, Verizon Wireless and “Daredevil,” an upcoming Fox theatrical. Returning sponsors include Bagel Bites, DC Shoes, Mountain Dew, Right Guard Xtreme Sport, Taco Bell, Jeep, Motorola, Playstation 2 and 1-800 CALL ATT. The games, taking place in Aspen Jan. 30 to Feb. 2, will be telecast on ABC Sports, ESPN and ESPN2.