Sassa/q & a;/41"/mike1st/mark2nd
By FRANK SWERTLOW
When NBC's West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer leaves his post later this year, Scott Sassa will be responsible for overseeing all of the network's entertainment-related businesses, making him one of Hollywood's most powerful figures.
Sassa is charged with revitalizing NBC, which has been slipping in the ratings over the past year. Part of this task is expected to be eased in May with the arrival of Garth Ancier from The WB network.
Prior to taking over NBC's entertainment division last October, when he replaced Warren Littlefield, the 40-year-old Sassa was president of NBC's owned-and-operated-stations unit, which includes KNBC-TV Channel 4 in Los Angeles. Before joining NBC, he worked for Ronald Perelman's Andrews Group, where he was CEO of Marvel Entertainment, an Andrews Group subsidiary. Before that he spent nine years at Turner Broadcasting System, and before that he was vice president of network management for Fox Broadcasting, where he worked for Barry Diller.
Question: Where are you going to live, here or in New York?
Answer: Both places. My family will be in New York. My kids go to school in New York. Right now I am spending five days a week in Los Angeles. When Garth Ancier gets on board, I'll probably spend three or four days a week here.
Q: Why not move here full time?
A: NBC is based out of New York and much of our business is out of there. That's the first reason. A close second is objectivity, not getting seduced by being in a community where everybody you know is somebody you work with or meet at your kid's soccer games on the weekend.
Q: Fortune magazine had this headline: "Can Scott Sassa Revive NBC? Can Anyone?" Well, can you?
A: I would like to take issue with that headline. NBC last season was the No. 1 network in 18- to 49-year-olds. We are currently No. 1 in 18- to 49-year-olds. We have won 16 out of the last 17 sweeps and we are within one-tenth of a rating point in winning households. NBC is in a good place.
Q: But NBC has stumbled.
A: We lost (NFL) football and we lost "Seinfeld." Football will prove to be a smart financial decision. "Seinfeld" was a show that we would have liked to have for one more year. The misgiving we had was that we didn't create a few more hits around it that would have allowed us to keep our momentum going forward.
Q: No regrets about football?
A: Yes, but would you like to have paid $500 million a year when the revenue was somewhere in the $325 to $350 million range? No. When you look at the demo growth from our networks to other networks, we have a drop in men 18 to 34 (years old), principally because of "Seinfeld" and some from football. But you don't see it being picked up at other networks. Everybody is down in that demo.
Q: Is it inevitable that networks and movie studios will merge, like Disney and ABC did?
A: That integration did not help (Disney and ABC). Nobody knows what it means for the long term. But in the short and medium term, you don't see a whole lot of advantage in those types of mergers. The difference between 1995 and today is the prices. The value of these companies has increased so dramatically that the idea of merging or buying another entity, whether it be a cable network or a movie library or a TV network, is much more expensive.
Q: Talking about expensive, Warner Bros. reportedly makes $13 million per episode on its deal for "ER" with NBC. How did that deal change the economics of the business?
A: I don't think we understand what the effect of that number was, but I do believe most people understand that there was a confluence of events that may never happen again in my lifetime that affected that decision. Nobody held a gun to our heads. We made it knowingly. That ought to tell you how important our Thursday night is to us. It is a deal that made sense.
Q: Why couldn't NBC go out with a checkbook and hire the best producer-writers in town? Then you'd have everything a studio would have but without all the baggage.
A: I'm not sure that throwing money at the problem is the answer. But we should be able to create a studio environment, and we are on our way with "Will and Grace" and "Providence," which we own.
Q: So you plan to continue in-house production?
A: Yes, but our first and foremost job is to have the best shows out there. We are going to buy shows from wherever the market is. We can't corner all the great talent.
Q: At one point, the major Hollywood studios were supposed to be boycotting NBC because of your ownership demands in their new shows. What's the status of that?
A: We never discuss the status of our deals.
Q: Is there still a boycott?
A: Won't comment on that either way.
Q: Will the networks continue to demand an equity position in new shows?
A: The networks will demand they get the best shows first. To the extent they can have equity participation, they will. If you own 100 percent of the schedule, it's akin to going to Las Vegas and betting on every number in roulette. You'd win, but you lose. We need to make smart bets.
Q: You were instrumental in creating a whole group of cable channels for Ted Turner. Will you start any entertainment cable channels at NBC?
A: It is a different day. We started TNT in 1988, the Cartoon Network in '91-'92, and Turner Classic Movies about that same time. I am not sure that starting cable networks from scratch right now provides the same value because the cost is so great. Also, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is diminished by the fact that there are already 240 cable networks out there.
Q: What was it like working for Barry Diller at Fox?
A: I learned more from Barry Diller than anybody. Barry is just a smart guy who had been around corporations and media and knows the different tricks about how to make things work. A great executive.
A: Very tough, and not the easiest to work for. He brings out the best in you. The lessons I have learned from him are the best lessons I have learned.
Q: He fired you, saying you were in over your head. Were you?
A: I was. I was 27 and we were trying to start a network, and there were a lot of things we didn't know, and there were a lot of things we didn't know that we should have known.
Q: Are you in over your head again, in this job?
A: I have gone through a lot since then. And the other piece of that remark Barry made was that (firing me) was the biggest mistake he ever made. I think I have gone through enough things, being at cable networks, looking at buying broadcast networks, spending time at the stations group. The fact that I was in the feature business means I have no envy of being in the feature business. I like television and I am very comfortable being here.
Q: Can the networks prevent their market shares from being further eroded by cable?
A: The networks cannot stop erosion and the cable networks cannot stop erosion. The top cable networks are not seeing any growth. You are seeing nominal growth based upon an increase of their universe. TBS is doing about 60 percent of the rating it had 10 years ago. What you are seeing is six broadcast networks that are doing about 52-53 percent of the share. The remaining 48 percent of that share is being divided up into 240 different cable networks. Cable networks are a good business. They clearly are not developing the kind of mass we deliver.
Q: Where did the networks go wrong, or did they?
A: The networks generally didn't jump on the train early enough. But in the mid-'80s, everybody made course corrections. ABC had a number of channels. We have a couple of channels. Everybody is being very aggressive, making sure they have their place at the table.
Q: What's a typical work day for you?
A: When I am on the West Coast, I get faxed ratings at 5:15 at my house. I start making phone calls at 5:30, then I go work out for awhile. I tend not to have breakfasts, so far. I am in the office generally by 7:30 or 8. Then it is a lot of meetings and phone calls. At the end of the day, I'll go to a dinner or a taping. When I get home, I'll get on the computer to answer some e-mails and read some scripts.
Q: Best part of the job?
A: Winning, You have to take this job because you are a competitive person. To win is always a great joy.
Scott M. Sassa
Title: President, NBC Entertainment
Born: Feb. 2, 1959
Education: Attended USC
Career Turning Point: Meeting Ted Turner and going to work for him
Most Admired Person: Too many to mention
Personal: Married, two children
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