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Change is brewing within the NBC studios

'Must Change TV'

The pressure's on, and change is good, at NBC

Web posted on:
Tuesday, November 03, 1998 4:55:36 PM EST

A NewsStand: CNN & Entertainment Weekly report
From Correspondent James Hattori

NEW YORK (CNN) -- To some in the media, NBC now stands for "new blood coming." In a decision announced last week, the network's programming chief, Warren Littlefield, is being replaced by a young gun named Scott Sassa.

And that's just the first step for Sassa, who the network says will eventually take over for NBC's West Coast president, Don Ohlmeyer.

Why make such big changes if your TV network is number one? With hits like "Frasier," "Friends" and "ER," NBC is far from needing intensive care.

But with ratings and profits sagging, and viewers continuing to defect to cable and other alternatives, the slogan around NBC these days is "Must Change TV."

Bill Carter, who covers television for the New York Times, puts the Littlefield-Sassa switch in perspective.

"It's significant in the sense that they're changing a programming executive who's been there for a very, very long time and is associated with basically all of their best shows in the last two decades, and bringing in someone who really has not done network programming before," Carter says.


Who is Sassa?

Sassa is a rising star who most recently headed NBC's stations division.

"He's only 39," says Joe Flynt of "Entertainment Weekly," "but despite his years, he's worked for Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Barry Diller, Don Ohlmeyer, who he worked with before joining NBC. So he's worked with a lot of huge, larger-than-life industry figures."

Flynt says Sassa learned well from his mentors.

"Clearly he's a very driven guy," Flynt says. "This is a guy who dropped out of college and started out in a public relations agency and used to get the boss's dry cleaning and now he's going to be president of NBC (Entertainment)."

And he's already being groomed to replace Ohlmeyer when Ohlmeyer's contract ends in January 2000.

'It's a very dynamic business'

Those are big shoes to fill. Ohlmeyer is a virtual entertainment czar who hasn't shied from controversy -- for example, he fired comedian Norm McDonald from "Saturday Night Live," then engaged him in a public spat.

"It's a very dynamic business," Ohlmeyer says. "It's an exciting business, but it's no place for the faint of heart."

The changes come as NBC struggles with cost-cutting to remain at the top of an industry in decline. NBC is still number one in prime-time so far this season, but its ratings have fallen twice as much as ABC, 10 times more than CBS.

Plus, NBC faces a boycott by Hollywood studios because of its new demand to either own part of newly developed shows or at least obtain long-term rights.

NBC's tough stand stems from "ER" syndrome. The peacock network is still smarting after getting plucked by Warner Brothers, which owns the show. The studio demanded and received from NBC a record-setting $13 million per episode to renew the top-rated drama.

But NBC still doesn't own the show, so it can't recoup costs by selling replay rights to cable and local stations. How much can that be worth? The recently departed "Seinfeld" reaped a bonanza in syndication -- an estimated $1.7 billion.

NBC got none of that. Now, it wants to change the system.

"We have to either have an ownership position in the show or some sense of long-term stability in license fees," Ohlmeyer said in a recent interview. "Otherwise, it's not a business for us."

'The bottom line'

NBC's more immediate order of business in a TV season many find lackluster is to find new hit shows.

"The pressure's on," says Carter of the New York Times. "In fact, I would say they have to, either in the midseason or the next fall, come up with a real hit or they're at risk of losing their number one position."

The pressure is now falling squarely on Sassa, an executive who's never created a broadcast network series.

"The bottom line for him is, you know, short term, find the right programs that'll keep us going and long term, find a new economic formula," says Carter.

NBC is not alone in that sense. The desire for a new formula is evident at CBS, as well. On Wednesday, chairman and CEO Michael Jordan announced his resignation. Taking over is Mel Karmazin, currently president of CBS. This change isn't likely to affect their current prime-time lineup.

Meanwhile, back at NBC, Sassa declined an interview with us. NBC officials have stated simply that the time was right for a realignment of the entertainment division. But it's clear they want new leadership for the new millennium.

So what will the NBC shakeup mean for viewers right now? Probably not too much. The fall season is already underway and the November sweeps period begins this week. But media analysts say there could be tremendous programming changes by this time next year.

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