John Nogawski: CBS TV Distribution Keeps ‘Open Dialogue’ With Oprah
WHO: John Nogawski, President, CBS Television Distribution
WHERE: One Pico, Shutters on the Beach hotel, Santa Monica, CA
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 17, 2008, lunch
THE DISH: CBS TV Distribution President John Nogawski sits back in a chair at One Pico in Santa Monica, with the Pacific Ocean lapping not far behind him. He looks pretty serene for a guy who is responsible for a company with billions of dollars in annual revenue and a staff of about 1,100 people including overhead and production, and who is undeniably feeling the heat of an economy in peril.
His station clients are struggling so badly that he anticipates some will start to have trouble paying CBS the license fees they owe. CBS, after all, distributes eight of the top 10 shows in syndication, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight and Judge Judy. Those shows also come with top-10 price tags.
The company’s executives are starting to have some tough conversations out in the market as they round out renewals. Most of their shows are renewed through at least 2011 in major markets, he says. But there’s still some selling yet to do and many stations’ ability to meet asking price is strained. He hasn’t, however, seen any big bills go unpaid—yet.
“There are some fragile groups that are always on our list of watch out for their situation and we do our best to monitor them and make sure we’re getting paid first,” he says. “As of today we’ve been lucky. We’ve had very limited negative conversations, and what I’d consider negative conversations are when you need to foreclose, take the product and move it someplace else or have somebody file chapter 11.”
“Do I anticipate that day coming? I do,” he says. “When they do we’ll deal with it.”
Meanwhile, as we are lunching, there’s soot in the air from the fires that have been burning for days across Southern California. And a couple weeks ago, the future of CBS jewel Oprah was thrown into question by an off-handed comment during another company’s earnings call.
That’s a lot for one person’s plate, but Nogawski seems confident. He says he’s just doing what he always does: focusing on preparation and solutions and refusing to dwell on what’s not going his way.
“Admit that we’re in a crisis,” he’s been telling his staff.“That’s okay. Out of any crisis, any adversity comes new ways of thinking, zero-basing, doing it smarter than you ever did before and you actually come out better.”
The economic crisis is no different than the forest fires raging around us, he says.“Bad as it is, and you never want to see anything happen badly to human life, but those hills and those areas will come back more beautiful than ever because of it,” he says. “Like what’s going on in the industry. There’s a culling of the herd right now. And the people who are real strong, real smart and people who are real malleable will come out looking better than they ever did.”
Since Nogawski was picked in the spring to succeed the late Roger King, he has been charged with leading a staff that draws from a number of different corporate cultures. Nogawski started his career at Paramount’s TV distribution division, which ultimately merged with or gobbled up many companies throughout the years. That of course included the big marriage in 2006 with King World, the distributor of Oprah, Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, creating what it is now CBS TV Distribution.
When asked if he has been steering things back toward a “Paramount way,” he distanced himself from the notion. “I don’t know if it’s a Paramount way,” he says. “I’m all about preparedness, all about strategy and I’m just somebody who has prided my own personal career on that. I find that if we don’t do that, everybody who works with me, we’re not doing it the same way, so I kind of demand that of the people who work with me and they’re used to it. We all sort of speak in code as a result of that.”
VIDEO John Nogawski on the corporate culture at CBS TV Distribution.
The Oprah situation, on the other hand, is not a crisis. But Nogawski was surprised by Discovery chief David Zaslav’s comments earlier this month during an earnings call that Oprah Winfrey would end her syndicated show once her current deal is up in 2011.
Zaslav’s comment “obviously wasn’t on script,” and Winfrey was quick to call CBS to clarify that the mention wasn’t planned, Nogawski says.
“We understand that that could be the end but she hasn’t said that to us,” he says. “At the end of the day she’s making the decision.”
Nogawski says he expects to really find what Winfrey wants when the time is much closer to the expiration of the deal. “She doesn’t owe us any timin g. There’s nothing in any contract that says something has to be decided by a certain time. We just keep an open dialog.”
She may want to do less of the show or do it differently, and Nogawski says less Oprah is better than no Oprah. Perhaps the show could live on beyond the current syndication contract “in tandem” with a run on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, “maybe an over the air vehicle that also airs on her network,” he says.
Oprah has never been repurposed with a cable window, but that is certainly the distribution trend going forward. And three years is a lot of time to figure it out, Nogawski says. “We’re not rushing her out the door,” he says. “If anything we want to motivate her to want to stay.”
The day she does end the show “will be a tragic day,” he says. “If that day comes, it will be a very sad day for women across America, and a sad day for us as a syndicator. Hopefully we as a syndicator will come up with something that replaces that void.”
CBS is always looking for a personality who connects with viewers in a significant way. “Whether Oprah stayed or doesn’t stay it’s our obligation if we are conducting our business properly to identify people who identify with the viewer,” he says.
But Winfrey is an anomaly, he says. “There is no other Oprah,” he says, adding that she “became a lexicon for perfection.”
VIDEO More of John Nogawski on Oprah Winfrey and on daytime viewers’ appetite for “hopeful” programming.
Nogawski says he thinks CBS has identified some potential syndication stars who show promise of providing the sort of perspective he expects viewers to crave as the economic crisis continues. Among them: Orator T.D. Jakes, who is headlining a show the distributor is out selling for Fall 2009. The Jakes show is sold in about 50 % of the country, including the Tribune station group, he says. By the end of year he will know if they are moving forward, once they get a sense of the rest of the clearances, a cable window and international sales.
RELATED: More of Nogawski talking about T.D. Jakes.
DINED ON: Nogawski’s choice of venue was less about the restaurant, more about the environment, he says.
One Pico is right on the beach, which is exactly where he likes to be off hours, wearing flip-flops. “We all work in a very stressful business and how I maintain myself is keeping all the rest of the parts of my life a kind of rosy, bright, sunshine in the background,” he says. “It gives me perspective rather than constantly dialing into what’s bad.”
At One Pico, he orders the tomato soup starter, a chicken dish, a side of fries and I suggest we give the s’mores a shot for dessert. He did not argue. Rather it inspired a story about a trip he takes to a lake in Utah with his family every year. The nights always end with s’mores.
“I have more fun at that little family camp out when we can sit around and make a s’more than I do of going to a Four Seasons Hotel in some big city and having some foo foo dinner,” he says. “I’d rather be out in my shorts and my T-shirt and having caught my dinner for that night and end up with a delicious dessert like that. That to me is a good day.”
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