Hollywood's Broke: In Defense of Jeff Zucker (Really)

Success in Hollywood is, for the most part, random.

Now, there are certain projects that even a Bedouin nomad knows will be a monster hit. Lord of The Rings is one. It also happened to be executed with near perfection. There are also certain projects that any inmate of Shutter Island knows will be a total disaster. Battlefield Earth is one. Catwoman is another.


Otherwise, it’s a total crapshoot. But there’s a difference in perception depending on how things turn out. If it’s a hit, it’s easy to look like a genius by saying you knew it would be a hit the day the project came across your desk. Or, if it’s a surprise hit, you can coo,”we were just passionate about the project and knew audiences would love it if it was given a chance”. Presto.

But it’s easy to look like a fucking moron when a movie or TV show fails and it usually is because the programmer is a fucking moron. Because anyone can tell when a truly crap project is a crap project from day one. (The exceptions to the failure rule are those truly great works that fail, but find reverent critical reception – thus saving all involved from embarrassment and even giving them bragging rights by creating a “cult classic”).

The Network Chief Hippocratic Oath

Until now, when someone became the head of a network or cable channel, the truth was there was very little s/he could have done to guarantee that programming choices might be hits. There was a lot s/he can do to avoid total failure, however.

Don’t be a fucking moron.

Or, “first, do no harm.”

It’s easy to peg Les Moonves as a brilliant businessman and CEO, because he is. As a programmer, however, what he did was recognize a trend. Beginning with the C.S.I. franchise, he saw that (for no definable reason) audiences saw CBS as the network of the crime procedural. That’s what he’s ordered up for what now seems like forever. And CBS is in first place.

Do no harm. Presto. You’re a genius. Mr. Moonves need not do very much different.

Everyone else has a problem. They don’t have a brand.

FOX has gone through a few incarnations, and presently has this quasi-brand of action/crime/comedy/reality network. Whatever. Kevin Reilly is keeping things going. He’s done no harm. He’s a smart guy. FOX will survive, but all of television is crumbling, so he can’t afford to just do no harm anymore.

ABC is trying lots of things, to Steve McPherson’s credit. Same thing. It’ll survive, but ratings will decay. Flash Forward is a great concept with tremendous potential. But somebody screwed it up somewhere. There’s a provocative, mainstream hit in there. I say it deserves another chance. Get Ron Moore to take it over.

Speaking of which, Mark Stern at SyFy looks like a genius, and well he should, because he knew that Ron Moore had something special on his mind with the Battlestar: Galactica reboot. Most people still look at me like I’m a homeless madman when I insist it was the best TV show of the past 5 years. This was not a losing proposition no matter what happened after the pilot. I knew Mark when we was starting out as a creative exec at Trilogy. He matured into a great storyteller on The Outer Limits. He’s the guy you want in charge of a network because he understands what good storytelling is. He takes risks. I mean, can you imagine the look on the faces of GE executives when they heard “Battlestar: Galactica?”

Which brings us to NBC.


The Venture Capital Attitude

Jeff Zucker has been mercilessly hammered in the press. Nikki Finkeamatrix can’t stand the guy. And NBC has been a cluster fuck for some time. Lots of harm being done there.

But…BUT…I give you the words of entrepreneur Marc Cuban.

“Business environments change. When they do, as broadcast network television has, and continues to, there are two basic choices. You can do it the way it’s always been done, or you can challenge yourself to change the game.”

Everyone prophesized Leno would fail at 10 PM. That was a Shutter Island slam dunk. Still, Cuban is right that in the event that the move did work, the risk-reward potential made the attempt worth it. Upside was huge. Downside was Leno and Conan’s crocodile tears over their hurt feelings. Yeah, like Conan’s upset at his $32 million payoff, and that he’s getting his own show back in the Fall. Don’t think for a second that Conan’s agent, Rick Rosen at WME Entertainment, didn’t go into that deal knowing the Leno move wasn’t a win-win for his client. Smart agenting, that.

But did Zucker get any credit? Nope. But he did the right thing. And Cuban was right to say so. Read the article linked above as to why.

And I’ll go Cuban one better. Everyone excoriated Zucker for producing a little series called Kings. Actually it wasn’t so little. The pilot cost $10 million, and each episode cost something like $4.5 million – about 65% more than average.

Kings was a great show. A stellar show. 13 episodes of pure bliss. Creator Michael Green and his staff wrote 13 outstanding scripts. They cast it perfectly. They found fine young, new actors. The locations were boffo. The drama was Shakespearean and crackling. It delivered moving, and thought-provoking drama of what you might expect from HBO.

It came from NBC. It came from Jeff Zucker. It was a risk, and a good one.

So what happened?

Marketing screwed it up.

Green told Newsweek magazine, “They were very confused with how to market our show. I got nothing but support and interest in the religious or magical or somehow belief-inspired storytelling. When the time came for the marketing, there was a very deliberate, outspoken, loud desire articulated by them that ‘we are not going to say King David.‘ They just felt that would be detrimental to the show.”

Jesus Christ (pun intended)! When will Hollywood Marketing realize that eighty-three percent of American identify themselves as Christian? And that there is virtually no programming or films that are made and targeted exclusively to them?

Kings could’ve been a Roots-style event for Christians. Instead it was a mega-loss for NBC. I’ll fault Zucker for not ramming through that marketing mandate, but at least he had the courage to order a great show. He took a risk. He just didn’t commit all the way.

The New Hippocratic Oath

“Do no harm” no longer applies in television. Network television is being overrun. It needs to boldly counterattack before it becomes obsolete.

Kevin Reilly, Steve McPherson, Whoever comes in to run NBC. — you want to overtake Les?

Doing no harm is like buying Treasury Bonds. I’m not a shareholder in these goddamn stocks for 4% returns. I’m a shareholder because you’re spending venture-style capital. You should get venture-style capital returns.

So take risks.

Worse case scenario is you’ll all look like fucking geniuses.


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