Also Why Katie Couric Wants to Go to CBS and Other Tales from Network TV’s Most Desperate Year

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NEW YORK ( -- NBC left ad buyers furious after it pushed through rate increases for its disastrous 2004-2005 slate. ABC passed on “American Idol.” Sumner Redstone offered the top job at Viacom to Tom Freston, but Mr. Freston proposed sharing the job with Leslie Moonves to stop him from bolting. And Katie Couric is thinking about her legacy, which is why she’s tempted to jump to CBS.

New York Times TV reporter Bill Carter's new book, “Desperate Networks,” is due for release May 2. Galley copies are already whizzing around New York and Hollywood.
Those are just some of the juicy tales told by New York Times TV reporter Bill Carter in a new book, “Desperate Networks,” due for release May 2.

It’s sure to be a must-read in media land when it comes out, and the galleys are already whizzing around New York -- including the offices of Advertising Age -- and Hollywood. The book’s publicist fielded a request for 19 copies from NBC, which is said to be upset by its contents.

Passing on “Desperate Housewives”
The tome relates how NBC Universal Chairman-CEO Bob Wright launched a probe to find out why NBC hadn’t landed “Desperate Housewives.” The network was offered Marc Cherry’s show, but passed. Peter Tortorici, a program consultant for media-buying agency MindShare, had suggested financing the pilot of the show in a nontraditional way, through branded entertainment. MindShare passed as well.

NBC and MindShare shouldn’t feel too bad about passing on a potential hit, however. Mr. Carter details how for years ABC passed on every hit around, from “Survivor” and “CSI” to “The Apprentice” and “American Idol” -- twice.

“The thing that really struck me is that the best-paid and the smartest people in the business generally don’t know a hit when it strikes them over the head. It’s not their fault. It’s just the kind of business they’re in,” Mr. Carter said.

Among the other revelations: Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone wanted Co-Chief Operating Officer and Co-President Tom Freston to take over the running of Viacom, but in order to stop colleague Leslie Moonves from leaving, Mr. Freston offered to share the job.

Job share
The book details how, following Mel Karmazin’s exit from Viacom, Mr. Redstone told Mr. Freston to take over Viacom, or stay in his old position and work for Mr. Moonves. As the conversations went back and forth, Mr. Freston and Mr. Moonves agreed to share the job, but Mr. Freston got the prized Paramount studio.

One chapter, “The tribe has spoken,” reveals the back and forth between Mark Burnett and Mr. Moonves over how to split the ad revenue from “Survivor.”

A CBS spokesman had no comment. Viacom did not respond to calls. NBC also had no comment.

Then there’s the matter of NBC’s billion-dollar decline in ad revenue in 2005. One senior NBC ad executive told Mr. Carter that the result was two years of punishment, one for the failures of the 2004-2005 season and second for the lack of promise in the 2005-2006 season, which is almost concluded.

Kick Me
The book characterizes NBC ad-sales staff’s demand to be paid more for finishing fourth instead of first as brazen, and succinctly describes advertisers’ reaction: “When Keith Turner, the NBC head of sales, went into the marketplace asking for a 2% increase for NBC’s new schedule, he might as well have hung a ‘Kick Me’ sign around his neck.”

In one chapter, “I Saw the News Today, Oh Boy,” Mr. Carter chronicles how in one year, four veteran network news anchors vacated their chairs -- NBC’s Tom Brokaw, CBS’s Dan Rather and ABC’s Ted Koppel through retirement, and ABC’s Peter Jennings through his untimely death -- and the struggle of the networks to update their nightly newscasts, including CBS’s pursuit of “The Today Show” mainstay Katie Couric.

First woman solo anchor
According to Mr. Carter, Ms. Couric’s associates speculated that ABC's appointment of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff to the evening news anchor desk made it easier for her to jump to CBS, since “That team she has to figure she can beat.” Another of Ms. Couric's friends relates that the "achievement of being the first woman solo anchor is a huge deal for her.” The unknown, Mr. Carter writes, is whether Ms. Couric has the stomach for what is sure to be ferocious criticism if she steps into the chair vacated by MR. Rather.

The book is bound to be the talk of the upfronts, with a release date scheduled for two weeks ahead of the presentations. Mr. Carter is also set for an extensive press tour, including NBC’s “Today Show” and PBS' “Charlie Rose,” among others.

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