When New York Times reporter Bill Carter's hotly anticipated book on the TV industry comes out this spring, don't expect to see NBC Universal exec Jeff Zucker lining up for a signed copy at the book party.
Instead, look for CBS Corp.'s Les Moonves and ex-ABC President Lloyd Braun to lead the toasts.
Carter's Desperate Networks isn't due out until May, but the uncorrected galleys have been burning up the executive suites of the industry's chieftains. The book recounts the past five years in the business, offering an insider view of the dramatic resurgence at ABC, the steady growth at CBS and the ratings collapse at NBC.
Because the book's index hasn't been released, executives and their minions are scouring pages for signs that Carter has treated them harshly or—perhaps worse—treated their rivals favorably.
According to their associates, NBC U Television Group CEO Zucker, his boss NBC U Chairman Bob Wright, CBS Corp. President Moonves and ABC Entertainment President Steve McPherson have read at least part of the book.
Flash! doesn't know which parts, of course, but we suspect each read with interest Carter's characterizations of the other guy's foibles and idiosyncrasies.
For example, Wright's wife, Suzanne—who insiders know is virtually NBC U's chief of staff—is described deliciously as a “loyal tigress.”
Carter also details McPherson's reputation for poor anger management, quoting an agent who nicknamed him “purple Steve,” because “when he got angry, he would get so red in the face. And there were times when he would get so sullen he would literally mumble.”
Zucker is characterized as failing upward while NBC's prime time schedule unraveled. Agents complain that he was inattentive during meetings, focusing more on the TV sets in his office than on the major writers pitching him their series.
“He was taking credit for what others have done,” says former NBC programming strategist Preston Beckman (now at Fox) in the book. “You listen to him and it's like: What the fuck have you done? There was arrogance; there was haughtiness. He was dismantling what we had built at NBC and making it seem like he invented it all.”
Moonves (who, we learn, privately refers to Zucker as “Zippy”) is generally lauded, but he doesn't escape some frank treatment of his own temper. A CBS executive recalls a contentious staff meeting in which the CBS chief literally drew blood—his own. While nervously scratching his own cheek, “Moonves got so worked up, and the scratching got so fevered, that blood began dripping down his face onto his shirt.”
Carter also dishes on the sausage-making behind some of TV's biggest hits.
After ABC struck gold with the universally rejected Desperate Housewives, NBC U's Wright called creator Marc Cherry wanting to know if any NBC executives had seen and rejected the script and asking Cherry to name names.
Carter also follows Simon Cowell through the process of pitching American Idol and getting rejected by NBC, ABC, and UPN. And he describes how ABC fumbled The Apprentice when an enthusiastic Braun got bogged down in Disney's bureaucratic game of “mother may I,” in which Disney's Michael Eisner and Bob Iger stuck their noses into every deal.
After getting axed for ABC's ratings problems in 2004, Carter reveals, Braun obsessed over a pet project he had left behind: Lost. Fearing that the new regime would scrap the odd, expensive series, he secretly shopped his baby, trying to persuade NBC to step up and buy the show.
In addition to quietly negotiating with one NBC executive, Braun called an agent friend to ask if he would deliver a rough cut of the Lost pilot to NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly at home, “in the dead of night if necessary.”
In an interview with Flash!, Carter says the book shows how often success can be accidental, with almost every hit show having endured serial rejection.
“You can be Les Moonves and initially reject Survivor,” Carter says. “But if you have someone on your staff who really, really champions it and you listen to him, it can pay off later.”