Generating generations of execs
From the ranks of Columbia TriStar come presidents of top syndication companies
Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/14/2001 7:00:00 PM
In Hollywood, Columbia TriStar Television Distribution is in the business of selling hits, including Seinfeld and Ricki Lake among others. However, especially recently, it's also been in the business of nurturing the next generation of syndication executives.
Many executives have gone through the Sony-owned studio's doors and on to even bigger things in Hollywood. During the past year alone, three former Columbia executives were named president at top syndication companies.
Bob Cook, who formerly ran CTTD's marketing division, took the reins at Fox's syndication unit, Twentieth Television, in October, filling the void left at the studio last year by the death of Rick Jacobson. Ed Wilson, a Columbia TriStar sales alum and the former president of Eyemark Entertainment and King World Productions, is now the first-ever president of NBC Enterprises and Syndication. And Steve Mosko, who worked his way up CTTD's sales ladder after starting his career in local television, is the new president of Columbia TriStar Television Distribution.
Wilson and Cook have a long history in common, having started out at CTTD in 1990. Wilson and Cook left the studio together five years later to launch their own distribution company, and, most recently, the pair ran CBS Enterprises and Eyemark Entertainment together (see box, page 30). Mosko worked for Wilson for two years when he first joined CTTD in 1992 as a sales executive handling the West Coast.
But the real common denominator is former CTTD President Barry Thurston, who hired and helped groom all three.
"Barry was the consummate professional and he understood the business, and what was great about him was he brought to the table experience on the station side, as well as the syndication side," says Mosko, who left his job as station manager at WPHL-TV Philadelphia to join CTTD. "That was my background, and he wasn't afraid to hire people who weren't your usual suspects.
Thurston helped lasso Wilson away from rival Paramount Studios in 1990, where he had been working in the East Coast syndication sales division. And just a few months after adding Wilson to his force, Thurston asked him to have lunch with a marketing executive from Guber-Peters Television, a studio with which Columbia was merging at the time.
"Barry was looking for a head of marketing, and Sony had owned Guber-Peters Television at the time and was pretty much closing it," Wilson recalls. "Barry said, 'Will you go to lunch with this guy named Bob Cook?' Well, Bob was getting married in two weeks and, as it turned out, came to work with us at Columbia, I think a week after he got married."
Thurston, who had worked on the local station side prior to joining Columbia TriStar in 1986, says the fact that Wilson, Cook and Mosko all had worked at a local TV station at one point in their career made their transition to syndication much easier.
"One of the things that I always tried to impress upon our people was to flip their role around and picture themselves on the other side of the business, be that the program manager or GM," says Thurston, who stepped down at CTTD last spring. "And I had them ask the stations what we could help them with, either programming, promotion, lead-in and lead-out. I think we thought more like a TV station. So it helped in each of their cases that they had that background."
NBC: A New Syndie Player
At NBC, the idea of starting a domestic syndication division had been tossed around through the years, but network executives always shot it down because it didn't own many of its programs.
That all changed with the success of Will & Grace two years ago, produced by the network's revitalized NBC Studios. Still, the network was forced to farm out the distribution on the Emmy Award-winning series to Warner Bros.' syndication sales force. But that cost NBC millions.
"It was a wake-up call to everybody here," says NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa.
NBC Enterprises (formerly NBC Productions), has existed since the Bonanza days in the early 1960s and was designed to handle any ancillary businesses coming out of the network's studios. Recently the division has served as the part-time syndication unit, but only to handle international and cable sales for NBC-produced shows and films.
Over the last few years, NBC Enterprises sold Providence to Fox Family Channel, Profiler to Court TV and short-lived comedy Working to USA Networks. But any local TV station sales had to be handled by an outside company.
Sassa and NBC Chairman Bob Wright agreed that it was the right time for NBC to start a division and that someone like Wilson, who had started his own company and had experience with a major network's off-network products, was the perfect person.
"They told me I was a little bit corporate and a little bit entrepreneurial and that this would require a lot of both," says Wilson, who brought a number of former Eyemark/King World executives to NBC, including Jon Hookstratten (executive VP, administration and operations) and Mary Beth McAdaragh (VP, marketing).
"They said your division is not going to be big..So we are all here now to try to make it better, to try and produce programming that works and, most importantly, makes money."
That explains Wilson's first move on the job.
In December, NBC announced a first-of-its-kind program development and distribution partnership of the NBC owned-and-operated stations, Gannett Broadcasting and Hearst-Argyle Television. Under the deal, Wilson's division will produce first-run programs for the three station groups, taking into consideration each group's individual needs. In return, right out of the gate, nearly all of NBC Enterprises' first-run entries will be cleared in 60% of the nation where those broadcasting groups own stations. That's a luxury no other syndicator currently enjoys.
"Hopefully, that sets us on the right course," says Wilson. "Part of the problem with syndication right now is that too many of our competitors are concerned about whether they can sell a show or not. Now all we really have to be concerned with is can we produce the show or not and if we can produce good programming."
Critics say the new NBC station alliance will limit NBC's upside on potential big syndication hits if it develops a Judge Judy or Oprah -where bidding for the shows in big cities helped drive up revenues.
"We are trying to take all of the risk off the TV stations," counters Wilson. "That's part of the problem. Because if you are a TV station and you buy a show and it works, syndicators are going to come in and charge you a lot more money or threaten to take the show away. Now with our new agreement, that's not going to happen. If our shows work, the stations will pay for the success. If not, they won't have to pay for failures. We'll be able to replace a show real quick."
Linda Finnell, a former producer on The Today Show, is in charge of programming development at NBC Enterprises and Syndication. Finnell will be working with all of the network's divisions, including NBC News, Sports, cable properties MSNBC and CNBC and NBC Studios.
For the fall, NBC Enterprises is bringing out its first project, The Other Half, a female-skewing talk show hosted by four men, including Dick Clark. Wilson and Finnell say they are already looking to develop a daytime talk show for fall 2002 and that they are mulling over some potential reality and game projects.
What about a name for the NBC syndication division? Wilson says it will likely come in the New Year. "I think what we will eventually have is a brand under NBC Enterprises, much like we had with Eyemark under CBS Enterprises at my previous home. Hopefully, by the time The Other Half premieres, we'll have a domestic name and a logo."
Twentieth television in the 21st century
At Twentieth Television, Bob Cook inherits a syndication distributor that had been without a leader for nearly a year. The death of President Rick Jacobson last spring left Fox's syndication unit reeling and caught many in the industry off guard.
"Because they were leaderless for such a long period of time, I think they welcomed somebody coming in and taking control in terms of giving them some direction," says Cook, who left King World for Twentieth late last year.
Mitch Stern, the chairman and CEO of Fox's owned-and-operated stations and a good friend of Jacobson's, took on the responsibility of running Twentieth after his death.
Despite the loss of Jacobson, Twentieth has enjoyed virtually unprecedented success in the first-run area over the past two years. The 1999 launch of Divorce Court produced the highest-rated new series of the year ,and Power of Attorney is currently the top-rated freshman program this season. On the off-network side, Twentieth executives sold sitcom Dharma & Greg to local stations and finalized deals for Buffy, the Vampire Slayer;Ally McBeal;The Practice and King of the Hill.
"Rick was our leader, and it was a tough, tough time," says Twentieth's top sales executive, Paul Franklin. "But I think we got through it as well as we could."
Cook inherits Twentieth Television at a time when its launch group-which has been the 22 Fox owned-and-operated stations-is set to take on the Chris-Craft TV stations. The government could give the green light to parent company News Corp.'s acquisition of the Chris-Craft stations any day now. If the deal is approved, Twentieth would suddenly have vast opportunities, especially the duopolies the Chris-Craft acquisition creates in major markets, including Los Angeles.
"It was one of the lures that brought me over here," says Cook, speaking of the Chris-Craft deal. "It opens up all kinds of roads to us. I think it's going to be phenomenal for the direction of this company. It gives us endless opportunities to experiment and incubate programs for what could be an immediate national rollout or a slow rollout. It's really exciting."
Cook wants "localism" to be one of the keys to Twentieth's success. Think Oprah Winfrey, Cops or A Current Affair -all shows that got their starts in local markets and went on to success in syndication and on prime time TV. With Fox and Chris-Craft's stations, Cook says a piece of talent or a show format could be launched in a select number of markets, tinkered with and then brought onto the national level if deemed ready for the big-time.
"I think the whole notion of localism is something that has become a little bit cliché, but for this company it is so true," says Cook. "The economic models have to be such that it works if you are going to have a limited rollout. You don't want to deficit spend on too great a level. But I think the back-end success, once you take the show out nationally, could pay big dividends. Remember every time you take on one of these shows, it's a crap shoot."
Prior to recent success on the first-run front, Twentieth had struggled mightily with various talk shows, including a pair of duds featuring Magic Johnson and Terry Bradshaw. It has been more careful this year. Twentieth has numerous first-run projects in development, including a number of reality series, but Cook and Stern say the Chris-Craft deal, the slowing national economy and other factors have kept Twentieth from any first-run plans-for now.
On the off-network front, Twentieth has enjoyed success with its pipeline of comedies and dramas coming from co-owned 20th Century Fox and recent addition Fox TV Studios. Malcolm in theMiddle,The Hughleys and a number of other series are coming next.
"I think it's safe to assume that Twentieth will become a greater and greater power in terms of first-run over the next several years," says Stern. "The shows that are coming in off-network are just getting better and better and that will likely generate plenty of profits for Twentieth which should allow them to do a lot more development. One thing fuels the other."
A New Era at CTTD
Barry Thurston, former president of Columbia TriStar's syndication division, ran it in one form or another from 1986 through the beginning of last year, led the way for the studio to become one of the most profitable syndication outfits in all of Hollywood. With Thurston in command, Columbia TriStar sold two cycles of Seinfeld in off-network syndication for over $1.5 billion, launched more than a dozen other top network comedies and dramas at local broadcast stations and developed a first-run studio that has produced a number of series, including veteran talk show Ricki Lake.
When Thurston stepped down last year, his second-in-command, Steve Mosko took over. Mosko had been overseeing all of CTTD's syndication sales and programming efforts on both the cable and station side.
" I think the transition has gone fine. We have our teams in place and I was able to lock in all of the key people as part of this new team," says Mosko, who was named president of CTTD last July. "This move has allowed other people to move up within our company. It's been great. It's allowed people within the company to have new opportunities."
Mokso inherits a division that is very busy on the advertiser-sales front, first-run programming department and with off-network sales. CTTD currently has five first-run syndicated shows on the air: Ricki Lake; Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus; V.I.P.; Sheena and Battledome. Its off-network pipeline continues to flow from across the street at its co-owned network development studio and from elsewhere, with Just Shoot Me and The SteveHarvey Show coming to syndication this fall.
And its expanded push into first-run cable programming has landed three series on the air in recent years, including Lifetime's top original series Strong Medicine. CTTD also produces Ripley's Believe It or Not for TBS and Rude Awakenings for Showtime.
"One of our goals over the next couple of years is to really ramp up our development in original programming, both cable and first-run," says Mosko. "Particularly in the area of strips. That's where we think there is a real opportunity for us.
"We also want to do the basics well and be smart about every aspect of the business that we are involved in. We're going to put a real emphasis on working with our partners at the stations and the cable networks."
Whereas King World, Twentieth TV, Tribune, Buena Vista and a number of syndicators have ties to local TV stations, Columbia TriStar is without any launch partners. CTTD is one of the last of the independent syndication distributors: a studio without a co-owned station group to help launch its programs.
"I like our position," says Mosko. "I think as an independent we have to be smarter about the decisions we make. I think we have to work harder than most people. We have to be smarter, more service-oriented and really pay attention to details. And we have to come up with great programming ideas that are compelling to stations and cable networks. But as one of the few independents left, we have found success being the other partner for these groups and so far it has worked."
Unlike other syndication distributors, Mosko says, the emphasis at CTTD going forward is not going to be about selling double-digit numbers of shows each year to stations and cable networks. Rather, he says, "as a company we are going to become less concerned about saying we cleared X number of shows this year and more worried about developing programs that will work. And when we bring them into the marketplace, we believe they are going to work and have a future because they are well thought out."
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