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Of Paramount Importance

Moonves is reinvigorating the Viacom empire. Studio business just got hotter 6/13/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Eight years ago, the legendary Grant Tinker told Los Angeles
magazine, "I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. He's facing much worse odds than anyone has ever had." The former NBC chairman was talking about Leslie Moonves, who had just become president of CBS Entertainment.

Moonves deftly beat those odds and now has a new challenge: consolidating Viacom's TV production and syndication empire. With CBS, Paramount TV, and King World under his control as Viacom co-COO, speculation is rife. What tremors will it cause in the industry? Who will sit in his royal court?

For openers, Moonves is expected to do for Paramount Network Television what he did for Warner Bros. Television and CBS: fight to put it on top.

He says he relishes the opportunity. "It's an area I have a background in and a great love for," adds Moonves.

Moonves' appointment creates a more competitive studio marketplace. It should trigger increased spending on deals for writers and producers. He's made no secret that he expects Paramount to be a top producer for CBS and UPN, far more than during Jonathan Dolgen's tenure. And he'll press the studio to produce for the other four networks .

"He will ramp up Paramount to suit CBS's and UPN's needs," says an independent producer. "Any overflow may go elsewhere, but CBS or UPN will get first crack at any project on the Paramount lot."

Others believe that, under Moonves, Paramount will sell wherever it can. Sandy Grushow, former chairman of Fox Entertainment Group, says he expects to see Paramount become selectively aggressive about supplying shows to third-party networks and CBS, UPN, and Viacom's cable platforms.

"Les can justify some significant investment spending at the studio," says Grushow. "The question for Hollywood is, how will that spending be allocated? And how it will impact the overall marketplace?"

When Moonves ran Warner Bros., he really ran
it, say his closest network associates. "He was so involved in everything," says one CBS executive. "It was full-go sales. He won't be able to have that same relationship this time. I don't see him walking over to NBC to sell pilots."

That means Moonves is likely to hire someone new to run Paramount.

Agents and insiders are predicting that Paramount Network Television President Garry Hart's days are numbered. A CBS spokesman says speculation is premature; no decision has been made.

One name in the mix, however, is Eric Tannenbaum, who once ran Columbia TriStar Television and is currently an executive producer of the CBS hit Two and a Half Men. Others say Tannenbaum, who was a candidate to run NBC Universal's combined TV studio, likes running his independent-production company with his wife Kim too much to come aboard.

Moonves, known for keeping longtime lieutenants close, may look for leadership from within the CBS family.

Maria Crenna runs CBS Productions, CBS's financing arm. Moonves is expected to merge CBS Productions into Paramount. Crenna and two other established CBS execs and Moonves loyalists—CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem and head of drama development Nina Tassler—are considered top contenders to take over the combined entity.

Whoever gets the gig is expected to make big changes.

Over the past few years, Paramount has scaled down its output of network shows. With the departure of Frasier, Paramount lost its biggest hit, although it has some favorites: JAG, NCIS, and Enterprise, as well as Spelling's Charmed
and 7th Heaven.

Paramount has six new shows slated for next season: Spelling's Clubhouse
will be on CBS, Second Time Around
on UPN, Medium
and Medical Investigation
on NBC, Related by Family
on Fox, and Steven Bochco's Blind Justice
on ABC.

While the studio landed a respectable number of rookie shows, Paramount long ago dropped out of the race to be one of Hollywood's top producers.

"They've pulled back enormously over the past several years," says one independent producer. "That's been largely a cost-cutting move and a lack of belief in UPN as a viable source of revenue. That's obviously going to change."

Bragging rights for top studio have been awarded to Warner Bros. Television and Twentieth Century Fox Television for several years running. This year, Warner Bros. landed nine pilots in prime time, many of which will air on CBS and UPN, while TCFTV put 10 pilots on the air.

In his new capacity as co-COO, Moonves wants in to that club. But he faces something of a conflict of interest: He's both buyer and seller.

"You need to be very careful about how defensively you play the game on behalf of the network," says Grushow.

"If you've got a show that can score on a third-party network, that could mean hundreds of millions of dollars to the bottom line, you can't be overly concerned about what it means to your network," he says.

With CBS so close to Moonves' heart, it may be hard for him not to play favorites.

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