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Going behind the camera at major TV networks

In “Desperate Networks,” Bill Carter of the New York Times writes about the struggle for the attention of American viewers.
/ Source: TODAY

In the last five years, the four major TV networks have been struggling for the attention of American viewers who have become increasingly distracted with video games, cable TV shows and the Web. In his new book, “Desperate Networks,” Bill Carter, who covers the industry for the New York Times, writes about how hit shows like “American Idol,” “Survivor,” and “Desperate Housewives” made it to the airwaves and changed the fortunes of their networks. “Desperate Networks” goes behind the cameras to show how television executives, producers, and stars work in this cutthroat business. Read an excerpt:

Chapter One
Beautiful Girls
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Manhattan in mid-May 2005, few people in the great city had reason to be as buoyant, as self-satisfied, as downright gleeful as the reserved, handsome, impeccably dressed fifty-four-year-old man sitting in a prominent aisle seat in the orchestra section of Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. For Robert A. Iger, this was a day of real triumph, not merely because ABC, the network he had been associated with for virtually his entire career, all the way back to 1977, had emerged from a seemingly endless dark night of failure and financial loss to sudden, spectacular success, but also because he had survived one of the most precarious apprenticeships in media history. He had finally been designated as the successor to Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Company. That appointment had come just two months earlier, and it was due in no small measure to the startling turnaround at ABC during the just-completed 2004 — 2005 television season. Iger, once the top programmer at ABC himself, had presided, in his capacity as the number-two Disney executive, over nearly ten years of flops. The network seemed to be allergic to hit television shows. A batch of the biggest hits in recent years — Survivor, CSI, American Idol, The Apprentice — had all turned up first at ABC, only to have the net­work recoil in rejection.Much of the blame for those mind-blowing misreads had been laid at the feet of Iger and Eisner, in constant stories of how their crippling control over the network’s decision making had under­mined the efforts of the network’s creative executives to find the shows ABC needed so badly. Iger dismissed the stories as inaccu­rate, but certainly they had some effect on his increasingly chal­lenged aspirations to succeed Eisner. If he could not fix ABC in years of trying, why would anyone think he could master the more complex issues facing the Disney Company? Nor had the 2004 season begun with any great expectations. Just one year earlier, in April, there had been yet another multi-executive pile-up at ABC, as Iger axed both of the managers running the entertainment division and installed a new boss less than a month before the upfront. Nobody ever did something like that in April, because the upfront, an annual sales presentation of the new selec­tions of network prime-time shows, was so important to every net-work’s bottom line. At the upfront, so called because clients purchased commercial time in network shows before the season commenced, the big adver­tising clients in New York piled into some elegant midtown hall, watched as the network trotted out clips of the new series it had picked up, and then attended a loud, crowded, lavish after-party where many of the young ad buyers lined up at booths to get their photos taken with — and autographed by–the new “stars.” For ABC in recent years, that had meant more Ernie Hudson than Tim Allen. Even when ABC did seem to build a successful show with a real star, like the comedy 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, something awful seemed to happen, like the shocking sudden death of that show’s star, John Ritter. ABC had the feel — and maybe the smell — of the chronically snakebitten. Iger’s appointment of Stephen McPherson that April, accompa­nied by the announcement that he would create a new, improved ABC schedule from the pieces left behind by people who had just been ashcanned, seemed like an engraved invitation to every rattler, cobra, and asp in Hollywood to come and dine again on the carcass of ABC. This time the snakes went hungry. Now, a year later, no one in Lincoln Center, with the possible exception of McPherson himself, had benefited more from what ABC had wrought in the preceding twelve months than Bob Iger. As the upfront presentation began, the trim, ruddy-faced McPher­son walked out on stage, exuding a stony confidence. Thanks to the turnaround, McPherson had amassed, as a top Hollywood agent, Rick Rosen of Endeavor, put it, “more political capital than anyone else in this business.” McPherson had several people to thank for that success– including Iger, of course, for putting him in the job–but surely no one more than the man waiting behind a decorated screen at the center of the stage. Behind that screen, the man who had turned television on its head waited, psyching himself up for the performance of his lifetime. Marc Cherry could not help thinking of the significance of the moment, about how far he had come — all the way from forgotten, ignored, and broke to the toast of network television. Decked out in white tie and tails, Cherry was to be the centerpiece of this day of celebration for ABC. ABC was so downtrodden a year earlier that its late-night star, Jimmy Kimmel, had brought down the house with a joke about how each of the networks could be identified as a familiar type from high school. ABC was “the fat kid who eats paste” — that same ABC now had what the advertisers craved: the hottest of the hot shows. Out on stage, McPherson was working quickly through his early material to get to his major announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my friend Marc Cherry!” The screen parted in the middle and Cherry walked out with a flair that both reveled in and defied his own self-described “Stubby Kaye” look: round-faced, balding, roly-poly. The white tie and tails got a few laughs. Well, why shouldn’t this be a grand moment for this guy, the writer who could not get an interview, never mind a job, and who now had created Desperate Housewives, the biggest new scripted television show in years?

Cherry played it up. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I had the nicest year,” he said, soaking in the laughter. He called it an amazing time for his cast, his studio, and “especially my network.” Then he turned to an unseen orchestra leader. “Hit it!” he com­manded, turning his shoulder to the back of the stage as music came up and a montage of shots from the first season of Desperate Housewives played on video screens above him. A couple of other guys in tuxes appeared, handing Cherry a top hat and cane. With complete aplomb, he began to belt out “Beauti­ful Girls,” the Sondheim song from Follies, in a tenor voice so pure and powerful that many in the audience looked immediately for signs of lip-synching–but saw only a trained musical-theater singer fully in his element. Cherry sang: “Hats off, here they come, those beautiful girls . . . That’s what you’ve been waiting for.”

Cherry’s face loomed huge on the video screens as the camera caught him in close-up. “See them in their glory — Diamonds and pearls, dazzling jewels by the score. . . .”

Iger, beaming in his tightly controlled way, had to remember how Cherry had called to congratulate him the day the Disney appoint­ment was announced. Bob, surely recognizing what Desperate Housewives had meant to the moribund network that had been undermining his career ambitions, told Cherry, “Well, thank you for your part in it.” As Cherry sang, a full chorus line of guys with top hats and canes filed out and joined him. “This is what beauty can be. Beauty celestial, the best you’ll agree. All for you, these beautiful girls!”
And with another flourish Cherry swept his arm back and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, straight from Wisteria Lane, the Desperate Housewives!” Now the chorus escorted out a lineup of truly beautiful girls — women really, a group of six actresses, mostly in their forties, who had captured the country’s imagination from their first week on the air eight months earlier. Out they walked in floor-length gowns and faux jewels, a couple waving snow-white boas: Marcia Cross, the show’s uptight Bree, in a coppery-gold gown with a cleavage-baring cutout; Eva Longoria, the Hispanic sexpot, Gabrielle, in a bejeweled strapless silver number, her long diamond string earrings stretching so far one literally rested in her cleavage. The fourth in the parade was without boa or jewels, but the flash­ing smile and elegantly curled brown tresses signaled the central star­dom of Teri Hatcher, the emotionally vulnerable Susan of the series, in a striking beaded white V-neck gown. The reception from the audi­ence reinforced the point: Hatcher, the lead in an earlier, now almost forgotten ABC series, Lois & Clark, was a megawatt star again after descending so far into has-been land that she found herself, only a few months before her Housewives audition, far more desperate in her real life than anything Marc Cherry’s scripts had dished up for her. “This is what drives men insane, Here from our cheery, Wisteria Lane...”
One day earlier, Monday, at a venue famed for the art of high-kicking, Radio City Music Hall, Jeff Zucker, NBC’s increasingly embattled entertainment leader, had been forced to put on a dance of his own. NBC, the network that had dominated ratings and prof­its over much of the previous two decades, had accomplished a fall of Icarus-like proportions, crashing all the way from first place to fourth (and dead last) in the span of one September-to-May televi­sion season. And the only credible message Zucker could deliver that day was along the lines of: Yeah, we blew it. That afternoon, NBC hoped to package its programs skillfully enough to convince advertisers that the network’s aging series and new unknowns were still worth near the same level of investment as the year before. The preceding May, NBC had managed to maintain command of the market with close to $3 billion in upfront sales. NBC had achieved that feat even though its last truly “must-see” comedy, Friends, was gone, replaced by a spin-off, Joey, starring one holdover Friends cast member, Matt LeBlanc. A year later, Joey, completing a season in which it had shed millions of viewers in a yearlong megamolt, was somehow still being offered up as the network’s replacement for Friends, leading off Thursday night. There were beautiful girls at the NBC upfront show as well, but they weren’t singing and dancing. From a set made up to look like the anchor desk from the “Weekend Update” segment on Saturday Night Live, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler flayed their network for its woeful performance. “Buy NBC,” Fey urged the advertisers. “Because out of over a hundred TV channels, we’re number four — and that’s pretty good.” Poehler came back with “We’d like to promise you that this year things will be better — but we can’t.” And Fey praised the clarity of NBC’s new high-definition tech­nology, saying, “The picture is so clear that last week during Joey you could actually see Matt LeBlanc’s panic.” NBC was unaccustomed to this kind of humiliation, but in truth it had been a long time coming — six years at least, marked by a suc­cession of executive shakeups and seemingly intractable friction between the network’s West Coast entertainment planners and its East Coast corporate leadership. The resulting prime-time sched­ules, which aimed to sustain the tradition of Seinfeld and Friends, had flamed out, with nothing but ashes left of entries like Stark Raving Mad, Cursed, Inside Schwartz, Coupling, and, most recently, an expensive animated comedy, Father of the Pride. Zucker was back on the stage in Radio City a year after promis­ing greatness for Joey and Father of the Pride. He was still a package of energy, ambition, and cockiness in a compact frame. He was the utterly New York professional, in a perfectly tailored suit and close-shaved–but not skinned–bald pate. Zucker had lost much in the ratings in the past year but none of his stage presence. “We totally get it,” Zucker told the advertisers. “We did not have the season we told you we’d have.” Still, it was left to Kevin Reilly, Zucker’s handpicked choice to take over the entertainment operation in Burbank, California, to absorb the most lashes from the ritual self-flagellation, starring in a video in which he was depicted as slowly going mad over the per­formance of the previous fall’s entries, like Hawaii, LAX, and, yes, Father of the Pride. Though all those shows had been put in the pipeline with Reilly running the development staff, Zucker had been in overall charge of NBC Entertainment, a fact not lost on his growing legion of critics. Zucker, just now hitting forty, had been the most conspicuous boy wonder in recent network annals. He had risen like an ICBM in the corporate ranks at NBC, largely on the strength of his brilliant record producing the network’s most important (because it makes the most money) program, Today. Now fingers were being pointed at Zucker — some from competi­tors, but others from at least nominally nonpartisan Hollywood stu­dio and agency executives–for milking old NBC hits like ER and Law & Order of every drop of ratings juice left in them, and for being too clever by more than half in forestalling the day of reckon­ing with program stunts and gimmicks. Ted Harbert, who worked under Zucker as the head of NBC’s studio, credited Jeff for his “showman’s sense” but said, “Where he wasn’t facile was in script development. He could make up for a lot with sheer aggressiveness and scheduling, promoting and marketing — and that stuff counts. You can get ratings points out of that. But you have to have the source material. And in the end you’ve got to be able to guide your development people.” Script development became the almost universal knock on Zucker. “Zuck is very smart and a very good news producer,” one prominent NBC prime-time series producer said. “But clearly, script development is not his forte.” Zucker had made few real friends during his sojourn in Los Angeles, mostly because he never embraced the Hollywood life or the Hollywood game. He had made his share of enemies, though, mainly with his aggressive personality and his special talent for soaking up all the attention in every room, especially those with reporters in them. Preston Beckman, the prime-time scheduler for the Fox net­work, who had held the same job at NBC during the glory years of the nineties, before leaving with some bitterness just before Zucker arrived, was blunt in his assessment of Zucker’s performance at NBC Entertainment. “He was taking credit for what other people had done,” Beckman said. “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.” Some of the animus, especially from the Fox network, was attrib­utable to competitive jealousy over NBC’s long run at the top. Zucker, with his abundant morning-show skills in packaging multi­ple elements to best advantage, had moved NBC’s existing prime-time pieces around like a manic choreographer. He was always pushing every angle to build audiences, like the time he commis­sioned an NBC special to capitalize on the sudden fascination with Michael Jackson, telling the press it would be an hour all about “Michael Jackson’s face.” Zucker said, “Michael Jackson is the ulti­mate traffic accident. People can’t take their eyes off him.” The only trouble was that the comment ticked off members of the Jackson entourage and made compiling the special much harder.

Excerpted from "Desperate Networks," by Bill Carter. Copyright © 2006 by Bill Carter. Excerpted by permission of RH Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.