Commentary

Medium Cool - Once Again

Network TV is cool again. Water-cooler cool, that is. That's the pitch network executives are making this week to people who are notorious for being some of the biggest coolers of network TV shows: television critics. Apparently, the critics reacted rather coolly to the pitch.

"Traditional network programming had been overshadowed in the pop culture landscape in recent years by such cable hotshots as HBO's 'The Sopranos' and 'Sex and the City' and FX's 'The Shield'," observed The Hollywood Reporter's Cynthia Littleton, in her coverage of a CBS briefing Tuesday during the Television Critics Association's annual press tour in Los Angeles. While noting that both CBS and ABC have found traction with viewers and revived their fortunes, she called the pitch an "optimistic assessment."

But that didn't stop CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler from spinning, "We've reclaimed control of the water cooler from cable with shows like 'CSI,' 'Survivor,' 'Lost,' 'Desperate Housewives,' and 'American Idol.' These are the shows that people are talking about at the water cooler, in the cul-de-sacs, at the coffee shops, and in the chat rooms."

Coffee klatches aside, the real chatter during Tuesday's session of the critics' tour wasn't about any new shows, or network scheduling tactics. It was about the noticeable absence of network heavyweights from this year's presentations.

"Ms. Tassler's presentation marked CBS' first press tour in 10 years without Viacom Co-Chief Operating Officer Leslie Moonves leading the network's executive session," reported TelevisionWeek, adding Tassler's reassurance that Moonves would remain involved with the network even though he's taken on a bigger role within parent Viacom. "He is as involved as ever," she said. "CBS is the jewel in his crown."

It apparently wasn't enough of an assurance for Variety reporter, Josef Adalian, who implied that the absence of the "Eye supreme" - Variety-code for Moonves - as well the sidelining of NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker when NBC meets the press on Sunday, is more of a dodge than a matter of corporate governance.

"What gives?" chafed Adalian. The answer, according to his sources: The network chieftains are simply grooming the next generation of chiefs.

"In the case of Zucker, network insiders said NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly was keen to take on the task, making it clear that -- for better or worse -- he's assuming command of the division. Skeptics might accuse Zucker of simply handing off responsibility to Reilly now that the net's in fourth place, but several people familiar with the situation said Reilly was actually the biggest proponent of the plan," writes Adalian.

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