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Fast Track - Broadcasting & Cable

Fast Track

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NAB List Zeroes In on Three

The NAB could be setting a course for adventure, for Disney World, or maybe even planning a beer-bash celebration for its new president.

Top candidates to succeed | Eddie Fritts, long-time president of the National Association of Broadcasters, include former GOP Rep. and Love Boat co-star Fred Grandy, now a Washington radio talk-show host; Disney/ABC lobbyist Mitch Rose (ABC has just rejoined the association after a bitter divide); and David Rehr, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

Search-committee members had been sworn to secrecy, according to one member, and weren't talking Friday.

Picking Grandy, who played Gopher on the old ABC series, would make for lively copy. But Republican Rehr appears to be the front-runner, said one source. A one-time staffer for former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) he's well-connected with the lobbyist crowd. He's also said to be the headhunter's first choice, though ABC's Rose, former chief of staff to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska.), has apparently also interviewed well.

Also mentioned as a Fritts successor is former AOL and Time Warner executive Lisa Hook, one-time legal adviser to former FCC Chairman Dennis Patrick, and veteran CBS executive Martin Franks, who was an early contender. Franks is said to have been told “no thanks” in June.

—John Eggerton

Negotiate Reality Pact, WGA Urges Networks

The Writers Guild of America, rebuffed during its last contract negotiations with the networks from organizing reality-show storytellers, hopes that, by unleashing a flurry of class-action lawsuits, it can return to the bargaining table two years ahead of schedule.

“We are hoping we get a call,” says John McLean, the WGA's executive director. “We would like to do that. That is our goal.”

The guild filed a second lawsuit on behalf of 10 storytellers last week, alleging violations of labor laws relating to overtime, wages and meal periods against Fox and Rocket Science Laboratories. Seven shows were targeted: Trading Spouses, Joe Millionaire, The Next Joe Millionaire, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, Renovate My Family, Married by America and Seriously, Dude, I'm Gay.

At a press conference, three of the litigants said that they were forced to fill out falsified time cards and that last-minute schedule shifts resulted in scores of non-paid overtime hours.

The WGA filed its first suit July 7, naming 12 writers and producers as plaintiffs against ABC, CBS, The WB, TBS and four production companies. A third suit is pending. The networks aren't talking.

The networks' hard-line stance during the last negotiations forced the writers, directors and actors' unions to abandon reality issues and make concessions to help traditional programs succeed. Their rationale at the time was that reality hurt scripted fare.

McLean says networks claim that they don't control reality producers. But Victoria Drew, a plaintiff in the Fox suit, says network executives called the shots, frequently screening footage from midnight to 4 a.m., then demanding changes.

Some heavyweights of the reality business insist they treat their people well and pay their best employees far above the floor the WGA wants to set.

McLean says even top-tier reality shows treat people poorly. “Could there be an exception?” he says. “It's possible, but we haven't seen it.”

—Jim Benson

Charter Moves To Control Debt

In a big move to restructure its massive debt, Charter Communications is trying to shed $2 billion worth of liabilities by persuading investors to exchange bonds for notes that are worth far less. But the new bonds would be better protection if the company ever files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The exchange offer proposed last week essentially calls for investors to surrender about a quarter of the value of their holdings. Charter, controlled by Paul Allen, wants investors to swap 12 series of notes worth $8.4 billion that the company has sold over the years. In exchange, they would get new notes worth just $6.4 billion, 25% less.

Investors also would be offered equity in the company that Charter says is worth an additional $421 million. That would reduce bondholders' haircut to 20%. The plan would also give Charter about three extra years to repay the bonds.

The exchange offer is the biggest in a series of steps by Charter to control its $19 billion debt. It's just a start. According to UBS analyst Aryeh Bourkoff, Charter's debt will hit a massive 10 times annual cash flow this year. Other cable operators start getting uncomfortable when their leverage hits five times.

—John M. Higgins

ATAS Reelects Askin

Tribune Entertainment President/CEO Dick Askin was overwhelmingly reelected last week to a second term (2005-07) as chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

As is its customary practice, the Academy would not reveal the vote count. But a source says the vote “was not even close,” with Askin handily defeating his opponent, former Hallmark Channel Senior VP Maura Dunbar.

Askin has led the organization through a period of relative stability that saw an increase in network license fees for the rotating Emmy telecast.—J.B.

FCC Studies Stern, Again

The FCC is investigating an indecency complaint against a February Howard Stern broadcast over Infinity Broadcasting's WXRK(FM) New York, Stern's home base, and Beasley Broadcasting's WRXK(FM) Fort Myers, Fla.

The complaint was filed by Stern nemesis and frequent FCC filer, attorney Jack Thompson, who followed the complaint with a letter to Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone Wednesday advising him to yank Stern from Viacom-owned Infinity and charging that the company had done nothing to “stop Stern and his coven of sleazy sociopaths.”

The FCC's “letter of inquiry” is a fairly routine fact-finding step in the process, but it would seem this time that Stern would probably like nothing better than a fine because it could lead to his being able to leave Infinity sooner than Dec. 31, to join Sirius Satellite Radio, where he is due to begin, censor-free, in January.

Infinity has set a policy of suspending any jock who draws a proposed fine from the FCC, even before that proposal has been responded to by the company. So far, the FCC is only investigating the complaint.

The offending broadcast included the combining of porn stars and sausages with the singing of “Amazing Grace,” as well as women playing miniature golf with dildos on their heads.—J.E.

FCC Gets Complaints About Robertson Comments

The FCC received several complaints about Pat Robertson's cablecast call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Televangelist Robertson's comments came Aug. 15 on The 700 Club on ABC Family, which is contractually obligated to carry the show. The network quickly distanced itself from the comments.

The FCC generally asserts that it does not have jurisdiction over cable speech.

Robertson at first suggested that the media had misinterpreted his comments and blown them out of proportion. But two days later, he apologized for them.—J.E.

Fox Sports Adds Poker Show

Fox Sports Net will launch a 26-week series, Fulltiltpoker.net Presents: Learn From the Pros, starting Tuesday, Sept. 27 and then airing new episodes every Sunday at 4:30 p.m. with Tuesday repeats. Chris Rose hosts the half-hour show with poker pro Howard Lederer.

Each episode will include professionals' breaking down one specific strategy. FSN Executive VP of Programming and Production George Greenberg hopes the show ends up as a DVD set.

He says poker has three to five more years as a strong programming product. “It's like watching golf: You not only enjoy the competition, but you also can glean something for the next time you play.”—Ben Grossman

Martha's Poncho-Fest

The Sept. 12 premiere of NBC Universal's Martha, starring America's favorite ex-con, Martha Stewart, will be “Poncho Day,” inspired by a now- famous poncho crocheted for Stewart by a fellow inmate. All 164 members of the audience will wear a poncho they made based on the pattern posted on Stewart's Web site.—Allison Romano

Daniels' Touch at Lifetime

Look for a teen-friendly drama on Lifetime soon. The network's new programming chief, Susanne Daniels, left The WB four years ago, after developing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek and Gilmore Girls. Now she wants to bring a younger feel to the women's cable network shows like those she developed for her former employer.

“Lifetime has a very strong brand and a very strong loyalty with women. I just want to take advantage of that and create some serious programming not unlike shows with some of the stronger female characters that I developed at The WB,” says Daniels, who assumes the post of president, Entertainment, Lifetime Entertainment Services Sept. 12.

Daniels replaces previous entertainment chief Barbara Fisher, who left in May 2004. For most of the time since then, series development has been overseen by executive VP/general manager Rick Haskins, but he left in June after he and the network could not agree on a contract extension.

With Lifetime gearing up to rebrand in the near future, the network has already been wooing younger female viewers, while trying to keep its solid older fan base.

Daniels has ample experience in programming to women. Just 29 when she became head of prime time series for The WB in 1994, she rose to head the entertainment division in 1998. She has been running her own production company since leaving The WB.

Earlier, Daniels developed comedies including Martin and Living Single in two years as director of comedy development at Fox. She also spent two years as an ABC executive. Daniels began as an assistant to Lorne Michaels on Saturday Night Live.—Anne Becker

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