HRTS Smackdown: Network Chiefs on Best Behavior

TVWeek's James Hibberd: Rated

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The Beverly Hilton ballroom was packed with more than 1,000 attendees for the HRTS luncheon, a record-setting turnout. Many were hoping for sparks between the panelists, whose recent professional history reads like a potboiler of corporate intrigue.

The network programming chiefs on hand included ABC's Steve McPherson, NBC's Ben Silverman and Fox's Kevin Reilly -- all feet from the marble hallway where McPherson made his instantly famous "be a man" throwdown against Silverman in July for usurping Reilly's job at NBC. Also there were CBS' Nina Tassler and The CW's Dawn Ostroff (one of whom was jokingly advised to try telling the other to "be a woman").

But, alas, no fisticuffs or tumbling over ballroom chairs. There was some on-stage tension, but mostly of the murky body-language variety (such as Reilly not applauding when Silverman was introduced).

Director Barry Sonnenfeld, serving as moderator, helped diffuse tension by making jokes, but also diffused the possibility of gaining fresh insight from a group of high-profile executives who rarely are corralled together.

Sonnenfeld started the session by making comments about his penis size (unfunny), then jokingly asked whether Silverman got more sex as an independent producer or as a network executive (funny, and too bad he didn't wait for an answer).

Even by softball HRTS standards, Sonnenfeld seemed mainly interested in his own personal musings -- such as asking why his pitch meetings take so long, and how many hours executives spend reading scripts instead of spending time at home.

Actually, that latter question did prompt one exchange that for some was worth the price of admission. Silverman tried to gamely poke fun at his partygoer image by saying that, instead of spending time with his family like the other network executives, he's busy "dating their kids." Reilly leaned over and said, "I have two boys," and the audience hooted.

Sonnenfeld did hit home regarding the potential writers strike, taking the stance that networks should agree to pay writers residuals on new media. When Tassler and others tried to explain that nobody knows how the new-media business model is going to shake out, Sonnenfeld shot back, "When you get hired as the head of CBS, we don't know if you're going to do a good job or a bad job, but we pay you a salary nonetheless."

One subject of universal agreement: The current programming season, where all the networks roll out their top shows during the same few weeks in the fall, is an antiquated model. Reilly said breaking up the typical season schedule is one good thing that could come out of a writers strike.

"Everything gets locked into this dance," Reilly said. "No other business is manufacturing things the exact same way for 50 years. We're changing this and getting off the cycle. The strike could give us an excuse to shake things up."

Silverman agreed, saying they should look to the film industry as an example of a medium where releases are staggered throughout the year to help maximize industry success. "We load our guns with our biggest weapons and shoot at each other," he said. "(Theatricals) clear out of each other's way."
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