Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Where have all the TV executives gone?

TONIGHT SHOW host/king Johnny Carson was playing tennis one Sunday afternoon when he got a call. It was from a new executive at NBC. The Peacock was premiering some new shows and wondered if Johnny was okay with booking some of their stars. This would be like pulling the President of the United States out of the war room to ask if he knew what time Ikea closed at night. Johnny politely said, “If you’re still in this job in a year I’ll talk to you.”

Over my years in television I’ve worked with hundreds of TV executives – network and studio – and I’m amazed by how many of them have just disappeared. This isn’t a knock at executives. I’m very fond of many of them; see some socially. But I can’t count the number who once held pivotal influential positions in the industry and then just vanished.

Now granted, that side of the business is a revolving door. Always has been. My agent once said we don’t pitch a person, we pitch the chair. It’s Hollywood’s answer to Buckingham Palace – the orderly changing of the regimes. Unfortunately, some good people get caught in the fallout. Not everyone fired thought putting Jay Leno on in primetime was such a hot idea.

But other industries are just as precarious. Baseball is even worse than television. Managers and General Managers get fired so frequently they receive gold watches if they last in any one job for two seasons. But everyone stays in baseball. You may be a manager this year, a coach the next, and in the front office the following year. There are not too many dentists who were once the manager of the Houston Astros (although Casey Stengel did go to dental school). They stay in baseball. They’re lifers.

In television many get out of the game. Not all, of course. Some leave network positions, become producers, and enjoy much success in that field. Others walk away with fuck you money. Some go into teaching or explore new media opportunities. But I would venture that for every former executive who remains in TV there are ten who have gone away forever.

A lot of the women go off and raise families. And of those I know, most say they’re happier. One told me that working with writers was great training for handling toddlers.

Still, it’s curious. Executives have to pay dues, get breaks, claw and scratch for advancement like anyone else. They’ve obviously made a career commitment to pursue television. So why do so many of them sign up for the witness protection program after a few years?

I doubt it’s the lure of glamor that private sector insurance provides. Or the flights on corporate jets that come with produce middle management.

And I guess executive functions are similar in all fields, but it must be tough for headhunters to fill corporate positions at Dow Chemical with people whose only previous experience is giving notes on TGIF comedies.


There is something nefarious going on. Perhaps these people have been kidnapped by other nations strapped for mass market entertainment. It’s like how Germany rounded up scientists during the war. Maybe that explains why Univision is routinely beating NBC. And U.S. networks are buying all these foreign shows. Is the Minister of Television of Bhutan really just the former VP of Late Night for ABC? Should we send out a search party? “Last seen picking up COP ROCK.”

Wherever these people are now, I hope they’re happier and more fulfilled than when they were developing WHO’S YOUR DADDY?

If you know of any of these lost executives, tell them to please call home. Their families miss them and the network wants the card key to the parking structure back.


John Pearley Huffman said...

In any business you need to understand when the relationships you have are person-to-person and when they're business card-to-business card.

And you need to keep in mind that if you were to suddenly drop dead, they'd jack up the business card, remove your lifeless carcass, and install someone new under it

Lee Gaul said...

Wow... Cop Rock. Wasn't that show the first ever to be cancelled while it was being aired?

Tod Hunter said...

The executive revolving door reminds me of an old joke from when I was studying TV production at CSUN:

The executive, going to lunch, tells his secretary "If my boss calls -- get his name."


Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

Reminds me of Johnny Carson's appearance on Cheers, an excellent episode.

Cliff stands on Johnny's mark after the Tonight Show has wrapped up, and imagines what it must be like to stand there every night. Carson sneaks in and says from behind Cliff, "Feels pretty good?" Nice moment.

Disappointed me after Carson retired when he dropped out of sight and stayed retired, but the man had earned his free time.

Anonymous said...

Executives in the entertainment field are most often "middle-men." Middle-men are most often people who prey or serve as a functionary for dysfunctional, ineffectual, inefficient people.
Most actors, and especially writers could never chart a career path, so we have agents and managers to cart their dysfunctional asses around town, because the "artists" could never do it.
Some are so overwhelmed they are latched onto by micro-middle-men, i.e. publicists and personal assistants.
A network left in the hands of artists would collapse, in short order, into a morass of neurotic confusion. It would sink with everyone's hands around each other's necks.
Whenever you see an industry with a lot of money floating around, you have tons of scraps of cash mismanaged. As long as you have that, you'll see plenty of middle-men. As middle-men are primarily opportunists, there's about as much reason for them to stick around after their meal ticket expires as a flock of pilot fish next to a dead shark.
Mark Zuckerberg is the classic middle-man for a dysfunctional country. He's a billionaire primarily due to the masses inability to manage a functional web page. We dissociate from his inherent creepiness, we weakly rationalize the inherent invasion of privacy by a corporate entity, because he fulfills a function.
If by some collective miracle, we somehow all figure out how to make a functional, successful webpage, the Mark Zuckerbergs will disappear just as fast as any executive who gets a few shows cancelled.
They're fundamentally parasites, for good or not, and they move one to other hosts.

- James

McAlvie said...

Ken, do you think the situation with network executives is worse today than maybe 20 years ago? It seems to me that they used to have much better taste in programming, and I've wondered if they took the job more seriously in the old days. Were the shows better back then because executives had the experience and maturity that made them more willing to give quality shows time to find their footing?

David Schwartz said...

Seems to me it's a pretty limited job classification. For example, a Network Executive spends x number of years working their way through the system until they finally reach the prestigious position of Network Executive. Then, after a few failed shows and other things (even those that are beyondn their control) that are blamed on them, there's not a lot of other things they can do within the television industry. If they're able to produce, fine, but I bet a lot of Network Executives went more the legal route and so are not really producers. And then if they're not able to be a television producer, once they've lost their jobs as executives, there are only so many executive-type opportunities, especially for people who have already had the opportunity. It seems to me that this would severely limit their job possibilities in the industry. Hopefully they have other skills (being lawyers, etc.) that they can fall back on for the rest of their careers.

BigTed said...

I remember a "Simpsons" episode in which pushy TV execs from Krusty's network turned out to be Terminators. Maybe they just went back to their own time?

Anonymous said...

If you haven't made the feminists mad enough with your rants against Chelsea and Whitney, now you say women might enjoy raising kids over working in show biz? You'd better praise Sandra Fluke real quick, and come up with another knock on Sarah Palin, or they'll be at your door.

Michael said...

off-topic, but here'a link to a great tribute to Vin Scully by Steve Rushin of SI :

Alan Tomlinson said...

The phrase, "fuck you money" was, I believe, coined by Johnny Carson.

He was just wonderful.


Alan Tomlinson

Kati said...

I feel so sorry for producers, from what I hear about them. It does sound like they're middle men squeezed from all sides (though I don't at all agree with Anonymous's assertion that they're parasitic and...etc). Go listen to the Nerdist Writers Panel and you'll hear how much they get slammed from the bottom. Then they're slammed from the top, as well.

Everyone has their role and can't do a great job until they understand their role, it seems to me. From what I hear, producers are mega-buffers to keep everyone as happy as possible. I do agree with Anonymous that SOME creative types would totally disfunction if they had to organize themselves. But then a lot of producers suck at writing, or a slew of other things, so there you go.

Thank God for specialization. Thank God for Mark Zuckerberg. If we all had to figure everything out for ourselves we'd still be trying to light our first fire.

And I'm a "feminist" and I don't take offense at what Ken said at all. (Not that you can lump all 'feminists' together, at all, and not that I wouldn't call 99% of us feminists, men included...) Most of the people Ken's seen leave probably have been women. And there's nothing wrong with raising kids and loving it. And my career experience has included 1. teaching 10th grade English and 2. playing manager for extremely gossipy (mostly) old women in various service industry jobs. It's very heartening to know my "baby-sitting" skills might come in handy in interpersonal relationships later on :p

D. McEwan said...

"Lee Gaul said...
Wow... Cop Rock. Wasn't that show the first ever to be cancelled while it was being aired?"

All shows get cancelled while they're still on the air. It's the cancellation that removes them from being on the air.

In any event, George Schlatter's notorious 1969 Laugh-In spin-off Turn-On is famous as the first show ever cancelled during its premiere broadcast, There was no second episode aired.

(In Cleveland, that wasn't fast enough. The station manager pulled it off the air 15 minutes in and aired black screen and organ music for the rest of its time period, that non-content seeming to him preferable to the second half of Turn-On.)

I'm that one guy in America who liked Cop Rock. I saw every episode, and saw them all again when they reran it in a late-night time slot. No one ever reran any of Turn-On. And Cop Rock was a hell of lot better than SMASH!

It happened that I was on the set of Laugh-In the night of Turn-On's only airing. I saw George Schlatter and the others troop out of the studio about 8:55PM to go see the broadcast with broad smiles on their faces, and saw them troop back in around 9:35 looking depressed. I had foolishly thought "I'll catch the second broadcast next week." Not to be.

Anonymous said...

"I'm that one guy in America who liked Cop Rock."

And I think that's absolutely all we'll ever need to know about you.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous I said...

"If you haven't made the feminists mad enough with your rants against Chelsea and Whitney, now you say women might enjoy raising kids over working in show biz?"

At least with the latter, you only have to blow one guy one time to get your dream job.

Anonymous II

Sherri said...

I think handling toddlers is great preparation for managing people in general, but I don't think it gets you very far on a resume. I learned more from dealing with toddlers than I ever learned working, though.

Ref said...

Anon 10:55, do you really know any feminists who identify with either Whitney or Chelsea?

Anonymous said...


Of course there are feminists who are down with Chelsea, if only to serve as irrefutable evidence that women can be Darth Vader and the Evil Emperor too.

Anonymous II

Johnny Walker said...

I remember Shane Black talking about how failure is treated like a contagious disease in Hollywood: If you experience any, people suddenly start giving you a wide berth in case they get "infected". No-one will take meetings with you, or answer your calls.

I imagine that's especially true for Network Executives. I'll bet that everyone wants to believe that the person in charge has golden guts. Is a Steve Jobs type savant who can see trends nobody else can. The idea that this person might actually know just as much as anyone else (i.e. nothing) must scare the crap out of people.

One failure as an Executive and I'd imagine it would be next to impossible to convince anyone that you should ever be given any responsibility ever again.

And unlike actors and writers, who can (if they're lucky) move onto smaller projects and work their way back up, I'm betting there aren't any such opportunities for Executives...

Even if there was, those executives who are exclusively driven by money and status aren't going to drop down in stature just to stay in the industry. Especially when they might be able to easily move to other sectors and retain their position.

Of course, I have no insider knowledge of Hollywood, so I could be completely wrong!

Dana Gabbard said...

Mark Evanier did a story in the Crossfire comic book whose final scenes has two network executives greeted by name by a homeless guy. And one of them realizes it is the same guy who at the start of the story (circa 6 months ago) held the job one of the two now has. Mark added a caption that while the story itself was fiction this incident actually happened.

If you want a peek at the underside of the entertainment business search out Crossfire (26 issues from Eclipse Comics) -- . Ditto the similar Hollywood Superstars (5 issues from Marvel/Epic). And as a bonus both have art by the legendary Dan Spiegle. The text pieces are an especial riot!

mhowell said...

O the irony. Back in the day I worked for Dow Chemical. Failed TV execs could hardly be any worse than the arrogant clowns at Corporate HQ.

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous said...
'I'm that one guy in America who liked Cop Rock.'

And I think that's absolutely all we'll ever need to know about you."

Who is this "we", Anonymous Coward? At least I sign my actual name to my remarks, rather than post anonymous insults like a craven, balless pussy. When I insult someone (as I am wont to do from time to time), they know who insulted them. The opinions of craven cowards are worthless.

D. McEwan said...

"mhowell said...
O the irony. Back in the day I worked for Dow Chemical. Failed TV execs could hardly be any worse than the arrogant clowns at Corporate HQ."

I think most will grant that the evil bastards who run Dow Chemical are vastly worse than any mere TV exec. TV execs just make lousy TV. Dow Chemical is busy poisoning the entire planet - for profit.