A Careful Strategy to Avoid Flops

Joel Berman/Paramount

Joel Berman has learned that patience is a virtue when it comes to running a successful business. And this Paramount Worldwide Television distribution president has recently had to exercise it.

The studio originally planned to bring The Steven Cojocaru Show to NATPE this month, pitching the daily talk show for next fall's schedule. That plan was dashed when Hollywood gadfly and Entertainment Tonight correspondent Cojocaru was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder and medically advised to get a kidney transplant. Paramount has other shows in its pipeline, but it doesn't look like any will be ready to roll by the time TV execs hit Las Vegas. So the studio may end up without a new first-run show to sell at NATPE.

Berman says he'd prefer to be out of the running than rush to find a replacement for Cojocaru. “We don't want to force a show on the air,” he says.

And it is this cautious approach that has helped Paramount produce such a high number of successful shows.

“There really is no magic formula, other than we don't feel obligated to go out with a new show every year. We have to believe that our show can work.”

Berman's method is paying off. Paramount's current slate includes the flourishing Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight and Judge Judy. In September, the company also successfully launched The Insider as a kind of companion half-hour to stalwart ET.

Selectivity is key when it comes to developing and nurturing shows that end up going to market. Thus, Berman and his deputies are constantly monitoring the opening of syndication “holes” where a Paramount show might have a fighting chance to replace a failing syndicated product. But he knows you have to be careful.

“If you have the top shows, the economics are tremendous. They've always been tremendous,” he says. “But what's changed is that if you have shows that are moderately successful, you're feeling ratings erosion. Sometimes, you're feeling license-fee erosion.”

Besides developing first-run shows, Berman and his team also sell a library of some 55,000 hours of films and off-net shows. The TV offerings include such classics as I Love Lucy, Hawaii Five-O, Cheers, Frasier, FamilyTies and Star Trek.

A graduate of Ohio University, Berman has been with Paramount since 1980. He joined as vice president and eastern division manager, then moved up the food chain, managing several key parts of the business before earning his current title.

He has watched the industry change dramatically over the past two decades, and he survived shake-ups at Paramount, including its 1994 acquisition by Viacom and the more recent merger with CBS. Now, Berman also has a new boss: Viacom Co-COO Leslie Moonves, who said he won't merge Paramount with Viacom's other syndication giant, King World.

With a reinvigorated TV side, Berman is working harder than ever to develop Paramount's another big hit like Dr. Phil has become. He's also careful to avoid the flops—a very difficult task with the fickle nature of the viewers. Says Berman, “There's not a day that I take our success for granted.”