Reinventing the Business - Broadcasting & Cable

Reinventing the Business

How Columbia TriStar is changing the way television is made
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Leaving the set of sitcomKing of Queens on the massive Sony lot in Culver City, Calif., recently, Steve Mosko and Russ Krasnoff drifted toward the set of freshman CBS seriesThe Guardian, where they briefly congratulated two of the stars, Dabney Coleman and newcomer Simon Baker, for making the show into the top-rated new drama of the season. As they left, Mosko confided quietly to a companion about Baker, "We have to utilize this guy as much as we can. He's going to be a big star."

At about the same time, Krasnoff reached for his cell phone and called his assistant, the third call in 15 minutes. "Is she there yet?" asked Krasnoff, urgently,. "She" is formerChina Beach star Dana Delany, who is visiting to talk about the revived future of her Fox drama,Pasadena. Fox is planning to relaunch the low-rated yet critically acclaimed series later this spring and, says Krasnoff, "we are looking to do whatever it takes to keep the show afloat."

Does that sound like the workday of executives for a studio that is—the headlines say—getting out of the network business? Well, yes and no.

It's true that, late last year, Sony Chairman Howard Stringer, citing the loss of millions of dollars each year in failed series and the escalating costs of keeping a stable of top writers and producers on the payroll, closed down Columbia TriStar Television. That move, Sony sources say, will save Sony more than $100 million annually.

Stringer then tapped Mosko, who had run Sony's cable and syndication unit Columbia TriStar Television Distribution, to head a new all-encompassing TV studio, Columbia TriStar Domestic Television, a much more flexible operation that isn't solely in the network-television business. Krasnoff, who headed programming efforts for CTTD, was named president of programming and production at CTDT.

The two executives, who had previously overseen such series asThe Ricki Lake Show and Lifetime'sStrong Medicine, inherited all of Sony's other domestic-TV assets. Under their watch now are seven network series, includingKing of Queens, Family Law, Dawson's Creek and NBC's new Hank Azaria sitcom Imagine That. They also took on oversight of daytime soaps Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless, as well as production on game shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy and a handful of children's series.

And they still run the syndication business, which includes more than a dozen first-run series for cable and local TV stations.

Going forward, the new strategy at Sony will include a heavier involvement with major advertisers to limit Columbia TriStar's financial risk. Columbia already partners with Procter&Gamble on its soap operas and King of Queens. The strategy does have a downside, limiting Columbia TriStar's profit on the back end.

Mosko, who has been with Sony since 1992, when he started in syndication sales, says Sony had to change the way it went about its business—or else. Sony has been the leading independent TV-programming supplier in Hollywood, has no ties to a major broadcast or cable network (it does partially own Game Show Network), and doesn't own any local TV stations. So, to survive, it has to be nimble, quick and thrifty—and not get caught holding the bag when network plans go awry, as they almost always do.

The Mosko-Krasnoff method is far safer than most studios'. For the 2002-03 season, don't expect much out of Columbia TriStar in terms of network development. The studio has roughly 50 projects and scripts in development at the networks, nearly 20 at CBS alone. But now it appears that Columbia is looking to take only a passive interest in any scripts that get turned into pilots and will likely not produce any pilots at all this spring. Last year, Columbia TriStar produced nearly 11 pilots for five networks, landing two new series last fall (Pasadena at Fox and The Guardian at CBS).

"We are going to do comedies, we are going to do dramas, and we are going to do reality shows," says Krasnoff. "We just have to figure out a new economic model. If I knew what that model was today, I would tell you, and I would be doing it. My hope is that it's closer to our cable model than it is to what is currently the network one."

Krasnoff stresses that more money will be spent on development and production than on writers and talent. "The world is changing, and I think, if we didn't make this change now and have an overall domestic strategy to go along with where the marketplace is, we really would be out of touch with our business."

Says Mosko: "We are, in some sense, one-stop shopping for cable buyers, network buyers and local-station buyers. We can develop programming on our end and, as we go through the process, determine where the best place is to go with each show."

Thus far, Sony has made the most dramatic changes, but a number of other studios, including powerhouses Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox TV, have started trimming their writer/producer rosters and cutting costs in various ways.

"I think that the difficult economy that we are all enduring has forced all of us to take a hard look at our business and be more disciplined financially about the decisions we have made," says 20th Century Fox TV President Gary Newman. "We've gone to our producers and discussed with them the financial issues that we are facing, and we have across-the-board support from every producer committed to finding these savings we have asked them to find in their production budgets. But this can still be a very lucrative business for a studio."

A CHANGING CULTURE

Columbia TriStar Television originated in 1948 as Screen Gems and has gone through nearly a dozen incarnations since then, including a spell in the '80s when Coca-Cola ran it. Sony acquired the studio in 1989 and, five years later, combined TriStar Television with Columbia Pictures. Its hits over the years have included Bewitched, I Dream of Genie, Who's the Boss, Mad About You and Married…With Children.

Over the past several years, Columbia TriStar Television executives went on a spending spree, signing top writers, actors and producers to lucrative multi-year development deals. The deals made headlines—and headaches. Included on its roster were Danny DeVito's Jersey Films, Frances Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope division, and writers Denise DiNovi (The District) and Gavin Polone (Gilmore Girls).

But there was a cost: The studio was paying more than $50 million annually to keep nearly 50 writers/producers on the payroll. Major deals with stars like Bette Midler, whose CBS sitcom failed to last one season, also cost the studio millions. Now Sony is looking to get out of nearly every deal in almost any way it can.

"I've never seen a company that was once such a presence in the TV community go down to the bare bones so quickly," says CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem, whose network has done the most work with Columbia TriStar in recent years. "Probably their idea is that, if you strip it down and build it up slowly in a better model, you can be much more profitable. But I think their problem in the past was that they were burdened with a lot of things that had happened in previous regimes and it all kind of caught up with them."

Since October, about 60 executives on the network side have lost their jobs, including Columbia TriStar TV President Len Grossi and head of production Tom Mazza. Only one of the studio's big writers (Polone) has left the lot thus far, but many more are expected to be bought out in the next several months.

The programming division under Jeanie Bradley—the unit that administers shows that already have a place on network schedules—has remained intact, and three-quarters of the division's business affairs and physical production departments remain. The made-for-TV movie staff, family-programming unit and children's programming area are largely unchanged.

Many of the syndication division's top executives have been promoted to new positions that now have responsibility for all the TV divisions. The syndication heads of marketing, research, sales and a few other areas have added responsibilities. Also, Bradley, Zack van Amburg and Melanie Chilek report to Krasnoff and oversee network, cable and syndication programming, respectively.

But insiders acknowledge that the bloodletting isn't over and more layoffs may be announced later in the year.

"Anytime you go through change, it's not easy for everybody," says Mosko. "Our goal now isn't just to survive the change but to succeed and win big. In some ways, I hope we are taking some sort of leadership role in the industry by addressing this new way of doing business."

So, while Columbia TriStar is out of the network-television business, it's still very much in it, but on its own terms.

"We are in the television business in a huge way still, and we are going to continue to be in the network side of it as well, absolutely," says Mosko. "All we have said is, 'Look, this old way of doing it doesn't work anymore.'We are not going to have all of these projects sitting out there, doing all of these pilots, where you lose hundreds of millions of dollars and all anybody can point to and say is that you had that big hit one time. We are still in the business, but we are just doing it in a different way."

A REALISTIC POLICY

Under Mosko and Krasnoff, Columbia's syndication division has recently thrived in first-run production while rival syndicators have been cutting back. A large share of its success, though, is coming from cable.

Credit Krasnoff, who joined CTTD in 1997, for accelerating the move to cable. "When I came over here, what we had was Ricki Lake and a few other shows, and we talked about trying to build a bigger business," he says. "We decided to become more aggressive in the first-run syndication business, and then we talked about the cable business, which is an area we have really grown into since."

Columbia sold its first cable series, The Net, to USA in July 1998 and followed later that year with Oh Baby at Lifetime and Rude Awakening at Showtime. Currently, the studio has Ripley's Believe It or Not at TBS, Strong Medicine at Lifetime, Going to California at Showtime, and a number of first-run series coming at FX, TNT, TBS and other networks.

Sony has also attempted a number of talk and variety series recently, with little success. Columbia's Donny & Marie lasted only two seasons, and a talk series based on the best-selling book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus didn't make it through one. Sony produces a court series in Judge Hatchett and a handful of weekend action shows, including Pamela Anderson's V.I.P.

But, since launching its first-run syndication operation with Ricki Lake in 1993, Columbia has failed to come up with a success along the lines of Judge Judy, Entertainment Tonight or Oprah Winfrey. Rather, the studio's fortunes have come through selling off-network shows from its network division and outside studios.

"We will continue to be major players in first-run syndication," says Mosko. "Syndication is very important to us, and we still think it's a viable business. I think we are all looking at the economics of what we produce a lot more closely than we have in the past, because you have to be realistic about what rating you are producing a show for."

CBS's Tellem likes what she sees. "I think Steve and Russ are getting a real kick out of this. They both come from syndication, but they both understand the network game as well. They are a great team, and they are both clearly capable of doing the job, but they are in a very, very difficult position right now just trying to figure out the new direction of the company."

The studio has a number of projects in development that will likely be coming to first-run syndication next season. Columbia executives have already sold an updated version of game show Pyramid with Donny Osmond to stations for the fall, but it has not officially announced anything else for 2002-03.

A talk-show/pop-culture series with former Talk Soup host John Henson, a Cops- like series with parole officers, and a reality series that follows couples getting married are said to have the inside track.

Pilots for all three series have been taped, but Krasnoff warns that all three could somehow wind up at a broadcast or cable network instead of syndication because of the new structure. The new Columbia TriStar is just going with the flow. "We are not developing any single-topic talk shows, we have not developed any action hours. We are trying to go in the direction where we see the audience," says Krasnoff. "To be third, fifth or tenth in a genre is not a business, and it's not a business for us."

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