Magazine

Blood, Sweat, And Ratings


DESPERATE NETWORKS

By Bill Carter

Doubleday -- 404pp -- $35.95

(Readers'

Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good An engaging look at TV networks' scramble for winning shows.

The Bad Outside challenges -- from cable to TiVo and more -- are neglected.

The Bottom Line An often juicy glimpse of what goes on behind the small screen.

Right from the start of his new book, Desperate Networks, veteran TV writer Bill Carter lets us know just how distressed the giants are. He takes us inside a 52nd-floor Rockefeller Center office to meet troubled NBC (GE) Universal Chairman Bob Wright. There's much to worry Wright, from new competitors to the pirating of shows.

The executive, who has presided over the champ of prime-time ratings, NBC, for nearly 20 years is not happy to find himself suddenly the head of an also-ran. But what's really bugging Wright is that he has missed out on one show, Desperate Housewives, which has become an explosive hit for ABC (DIS). In anger, Wright takes an unusual step: He calls the show's creator, Marc Cherry, directly to see if the program was ever shopped to NBC -- and if so, to find out just who screwed up. Cherry tells Wright that he did approach NBC, but won't say much more than that executives gave the show a pass. Adamant, Wright vows to pursue a witch-hunt and discover just who should get the blame.

In such scenes, The New York Times reporter Carter demonstrates that he won't be pulling any punches in this book, even though he might reasonably feel beholden to the top executives who have granted him remarkable access over many years. Desperate Networks is a behind-the-scenes, often biting look at the scramble for winning shows heading into the 2004-2005 TV season. It is certain to tick off more than a few of TV's elite, particularly those at NBC.

Here, for example, is how Carter describes Jeff Zucker, the golden boy producer of Today who rose to become president of NBC Entertainment. With the network's prime-time supremacy on the skids, his anxious colleagues fume "through gritted teeth" that "Zucker was getting by on a shoeshine and a smile, that he had delivered nothing of real value to NBC in his three years running [the entertainment division]: no Survivor, no CSI, no American Idol, no breakout hits of any kind."

Leslie Moonves, the CBS (CBS) chairman who did greenlight Survivor and CSI, comes across as a brilliant instinctual programmer who is also an incorrigible micromanager. Obsessing about his rivals during one meeting, Moonves gets so worked up that his Don Corleone-like habit of cheek-scratching draws blood, which drips down his face onto his shirt. But the manic behavior pays off. So sold is Moonves on relatively unknown actor William Petersen that he inks a $1 million "holding" deal, paying Petersen just to read scripts until he finds one he likes. The actor's ultimate choice: crime scene investigator Gil Grissom, the main character in the show, CSI, that pumps new blood into once-geriatric CBS.

It's all but impossible to write a timely book about the television industry these days, particularly given that technological developments seem to suggest new business models every week. So Carter shouldn't be blamed for ending his account too far back in time -- or for missing out on Katie Couric's big move to the anchor chair at CBS, although he hints such a development may be coming. The 2004-2005 season had plenty of drama: a resurgent ABC, a deflated NBC, the retirement of two news anchors, the death of another, Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, and Fox's (NWS) amazing ride with the megahit American Idol.

All the same, Desperate Networks suggests a strangely confined universe, in which the broadcast networks seem cognizant only of the competitive pressures between themselves or of internal peccadilloes. The proliferation and influence of cable TV along with such external forces as TiVo (TIVO), the Internet, the iPod, and video-on-demand get little attention from the author. Carter's index indicates that HBO (TWX), whose hits like The Sopranos and Sex and the City certainly gave network execs plenty of agita, is mentioned only twice in nearly 400 pages. And while Carter's narrative is certainly entertaining, it could have used a bit more analysis of just where the network business is headed.

Could it be headed in an extreme direction -- like into a mountainside? It seems the movers and shakers behind reality TV have few inhibitions. At one point, Carter tells us, Mike Darnell, the reality-programming guru for reality-crazed Fox, wanted to feature the crash of a 727, after the pilot bailed out, fitting the plane with cameras that would "capture the disaster in all its destructive glory." Darnell's proposal didn't fly, but the network still encouraged him to "push the limits with impunity."

In the end, even if Desperate Networks begs for more of a forecast on the future of network television, it is an engaging peek at what goes on behind the small screen -- and into the egos that determine what we see, and these days, what we TiVo.

By Tom Lowry


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