Warner Bros.’ Big-Idea Guy in L.A., Peter Roth

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PASADENA, Calif.–The TV reporters from all over the country were picking at plates of fajitas and corn chips in the middle of Stage 19A in the Warner Brothers lot. Peter Roth, the Warner Brothers Television president, approached the group and took a seat.

It was to be a casual, catered lunch thrown so members of the TV press corps–in town for the twice-yearly ritual during which the networks roll out new TV shows–could have an audience with the executive.

At tables surrounding Mr. Roth’s were Norm MacDonald and Jamie Foxx and Drew Carrey, the studio’s current crop of TV stars.

The stage was dark and surrounded with ficus trees covered in purple lights.

The reporters started lobbing their questions at Mr. Roth: What exactly led Jeanne Moreau, the French film star, to storm off the ER set after just one day of shooting? Would the show–Warner Brothers’ most successful, the No. 1 show on network television–survive the departure of Julianna Margulies? What about this new game-show phenomenon? Will Rob Lowe remain on West Wing ?

The game-show phenomenon? Rob Lowe? The Jeanne Moreau fiasco? There was Mr. Roth, now a key player in the new AOL-Time Warner mega-company, sitting with television reporters for the first time since the deal was announced, and the first thing they wanted to know about is the backstage melodrama at ER !

The scene was indicative of much of the Winter 2000 TV press tour, held by the Television Critics Association. Questions about the merger were few and far between. Yet the producers and studio heads and network presidents that were trotted before them were the ones who’ll be most affected by the merger.

During the Jan. 13 lunch, Mr. Roth countenanced the questions gladly enough. For instance: No, Warner Brothers does not intend to let Mr. Lowe out of his contract. But when the subject of the merger came up, he leaned forward in his chair, intense, and his eyes lit up.

As president of Warner Brothers Television, Mr. Roth likely made a million or two on the merger. Then there is the fact that his division, the one that produces television shows for Time Warner, will likely decide what form this new beast takes when it comes to your TV.

“Clearly, we’re on the cusp of a whole new world of opportunity,” he said.

Then, he uttered the words that, in the days just before the merger, had been left to digital freaks and on-line geeks.

“The traditional network structure will change,” he said. “You’re going to be able to watch what you want to watch when you want to watch it.”

By his reasoning–and most everybody else’s–the merger means that television viewers will eventually no longer have to wait until his studio’s ER comes onto the tube on NBC.

Key in the merger is Time Warner’s hundreds of miles of cable, which gives AOL access to the high-speed lines for “broadband service” that allows information–like video and sound–to travel 50 times faster than it does on today’s phone lines.

So, rather than wait until Thursday at 10 P.M., AOL Time Warner’s customers could conceivably go on-line any old time and download the ER episode, which will be digitally transferred to their new computerized TV by way of a high-speed broadband Internet connection.

Conceivably, NBC–as a kind of middleman in this transfer of information–could be left out altogether.

“The more opportunity and choices available for the viewers and audience,” Mr. Roth said, “the less stranglehold and monopoly the traditional networks are going to have.”

Right now, added studio vice president Craig Hunegs, the studio is unsure whether to enlist its big guns, like ER ‘s John Wells or Drew Carey ‘s Bruce Helfort to figure out this new form of programming. It’s not that they’re not big talents. It’s just that they might be old-school TV talents.

“There will be things about traditional TV that will change,” Mr. Hunegs said. “The big question is, are the big TV guys going to be the ones who determine what that new format is?”

Across the WB lot, as he walked to the ER writing room from the ER set under bright blue skies, Mr. Wells–a robust, redheaded man with a goatee–wasn’t so sure his life will change.

“If you wanted to watch a repeat of ER , and you tried to download an episode, it would take you 17 to 18 hours just to download it,” he said as he walked near the stucco bungalows that house Warner Brothers’ top writers. “So I think you have to be careful about saying everything is now going to completely change.”

But, in the end, Mr. Wells said, one thing that could completely change is what his bosses do with his shows after they’re produced. “I think it’ll definitely affect the way stuff gets sold,” he said.

Which brings us back to what Mr. Roth had said: With the technology that’s being hastened along by the Time Warner-AOL merger, the big network model will never be the same again once the proper connections are in place.

You have to wonder: Why will a studio need to sell a show to a network when it can get the show out there itself–and, more importantly, collect all the ad revenue itself?

But the networks are still the ones with the money and viewers and will surely continue to be for at least the next few years. Just last year, NBC paid his studio $13 million per episode for ER , even though it only makes about $9.27 million per show in ads.

“At this point, [the Internet] can’t possibly afford to pay studios the same amount of cash as the networks are paying now,” Mr. Roth said. “The business is not going to change radically, it’s going to change evolutionarily.”

(Psst. Tonight, on West Wing , it’s the one where Martin Sheen’s character gets mad and orders vengeance on the bastards who downed a U.S. plane. Tough acting assignment for Mr. Sheen, who is something of a ding-dong, believing that his own politics come before the role he’s playing!) [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]

Thursday, Jan. 20

Long after the CBS presentation at Pasadena’s Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel, when the others had all gone away, NYTV asked CBS president Les Moonves if the AOL-Time Warner deal meant the end of the network broadcast model?

In five years, he was asked, will people still be following traditional, prime-time schedules?

Follow such questions to their logical conclusions, and, basically, Mr. Moonves was being asked if network programming is on the verge of becoming a dead medium.

He didn’t seem to love the line of questioning. Mr. Moonves is a true creature of television–besides holding the top slots at Lorimar Television and Warner Brothers Television, he had also worked as an actor. He still looks like one, too, with shiny pearly whites, a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and a Robert Wagner-style, leading man’s voice. He could do a guest spot tomorrow.

“It may change some of our viewers’ viewing habits,” he said. “But I still think in 10 years, we’ll be making a prime-time schedule.”

By the current network thinking, television is generally a passive medium, where viewers sit back on their couches and leave the programming to programmers. This whole Internet TV thing asks the viewers to go from being passive to active.

Still, Mr. Moonves said, CBS is not without its own Internet strategy.

Anyway, it’s not like Mr. Moonves can get too worried. The truth is that his network still averages 13 million viewers per night–viewers the dot-com guys are paying a lot to reach right now as they try to build their names. That’s making for some fat TV network coffers. After a record May ad sales season, CBS’s sales were up 35 percent over last year for the fall.

But Mr. Moonves was running out of patience with this Internet talk. He did a Johnny Carson-style imaginary golf swing, indicating the interview was over. Fore!

Hey, watch the Evening News tonight on the network that made its name on news. [WCBS, 2, 6:30 P.M.]

Friday, Jan. 21

On Friday, Jan. 14, the guys from Replay TV were feeling a bit lonely. They had set up a special suite in the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton to show the TV reporters their wonderful machine.

It digitally records shows through the week so viewers don’t have to rely on the network schedules.

Another benefit: These handy little machines make it easy to skip the commercials.

But no one was showing up. It wasn’t too hard to figure out the lack of interest. First, the Replay TV guys were competing with a breaking news story (the Government was defending charges that it basically bribed networks to insert antidrug messages into their plot lines). And while these machines may have been considered futuristic just a couple of weeks before, the planned AOL-Time Warner merger makes them seem likely for obsolescence.

Why buy one of these babies when you’ll probably get the same results and more over the Internet?

Replay TV executive Jim Plant was ready with a list of comebacks. “We don’t know when this is all going to shake out,” said Mr. Plant, in a denim shirt with “Replay TV” etched in red stitching. “We know this is a technology that works today with today’s infrastructure.”

Mr. Plant showed a screen where the channels represent shows. For instance, you can have a Providence channel, where Providence ep-isodes are stored.

“We know that people who have these systems are watching more TV,” he said. “What determines whether you watch TV? Whether something good is on. With this, there’s always something stored that you want to watch.”

What Mr. Plant didn’t point out was the fact that the machine lets you skip commercials. He stopped mentioning that so much after NBC bought into the company.

Tonight on Providence , Syd makes an erroneous diagnosis. [WNBC, 4, 8 P.M.]

Saturday, Jan. 22

Allan Arkush, a longtime TV director, couldn’t figure out all the hubbub surrounding this ad deal between the Government and the networks. The stories that came out that day said the networks had sold the Government $1 billion worth of ads for antidrug public service announcements. Since this was the Government they were dealing with, they had to agree to air $1 billion worth of their own public service announcements as well. Part of the deal had it that if an approved antidrug message wound up in a prime-time script, a network could get one of the free P.S.A. ad slots back and put it up for sale.

It turned out the networks had won more than 100 of those waivers, but only after the shows had been produced by studios that had no knowledge of the deal. So, they said, they never changed a script in return for the waivers.

Still, everyone was going crazy. Questions were asked like: “What if the Government wanted to encourage the networks to insert anti-abortion themes in their programs?” The question became whether the networks could have given producers notes on a script in order to make the it eligible for a credit without telling them.

Mr. Arkush, who was flustered-looking at a Directors Guild of America cocktail party, said first of all, he really doubted it would ever happen that way. For instance, a David E. Kelley–creator of The Practice and Ally McBeal –isn’t going to blindly follow network notes. “When it comes to network notes, how much they get paid attention to depends on the show and producer,” he said. “David could ignore them.” And, Mr. Arkush said, he had never heard of the deal while he was working on David Kelley’s just-canceled Snoops . Meanwhile, he said, it’s not like you could go and run a pro-drug storyline on network TV, anyway.

“I think it’s like a big so-what,” Mr. Arkush said. “I think you know when you are doing something for a network what you’re going to be allowed to do.”

What you’re not allowed to do is create a show that doesn’t draw any viewers. Which is why Snoops got canceled even though it starred Gina Gershon.

For good clean fun tonight, catch Martial Law . Tonight, Sammo takes a part-time taxi driver job. Wa-wa-wa. [WCBS, 2, 9 P.M.]

Sunday, Jan. 23

Going into this television season, the sitcom was basically declared dead.

For instance, more dramas were picked up for the ’99-’00 season than half-hour comedies for the first time in nearly a decade. Then you have these game shows, which are taking up time slots that might otherwise be used for sitcoms.

But studio and network heads attending the winter TV press tour said they see that changing with Fox’s new Sunday-night show, Malcolm in the Middle .

“We usually wish one another ill, so it’s odd to see us all rooting for a show,” said David Kissinger, president of Studios USA, which produces Law & Order . “There is a great desire to resuscitate the half-hour comedy format … and I do think Malcolm in the Middle is going to lead that turn around.”

Lloyd Braun, co-chairman of ABC, was talking the same talk.

“I think Malcolm is something that’s really good and different, and people will come to it,” he said.

So, what is ABC doing to bring back the sitcom? Executives told NYTV they’re not only working with John Cleese on a sitcom for the fall, but also Denis Leary, who will likely star in a show as a New York cop.

Tonight, on Malcolm in the Middle , an adventure in babysitting. [WNYW, 5, 8:30 P.M.]

Monday, Jan. 24

Don’t hate Julianna Margulies just because she passed up a $27 million, two-year contract when she decided to up and leave ER . Ms. Margulies, who plays Nurse Carol Hathaway on the country’s No. 1-rated show, said she is upset about all the criticism she is receiving for the decision.

“It made me sad,” Mr. Margulies said as she greeted reporters on the ER set. “Now everybody says, ‘Oh, who do you think you are, some big movie star?’ I never said that. I said I wanted to move on as an actor.”

Then she lashed into America itself!

“It seems like it’s because of this sick American fantasy that money makes your problems go away. I have the same problems now that I had when I was a waitress … it doesn’t make your problems go away, it doesn’t make you a better person.”

Can we have a little of that doesn’t-make-you-a-better-person stuff, just to try it out? Mail the check, care of this newspaper.

Ms. Margulies said she might be coming to New York this summer to do some theat-ah. Tonight, on the ER rerun, the Nurse Hathaway character celebrates her birthday. (Aw, hell, we liked the old Emergency! better, anyway.) [TNT, 3, 7 P.M.]

Tuesday, Jan. 25

If anything seems to sum up a sense of crisis in the network community, it’s the resurgence of the game show, à la Who Wants to be a Millionaire .

“It’s a trend we hope goes away quickly,” Mr. Moonves said.

He understands it this way: “People really want to get rich. People–I think the economy is great, people are feeling good about themselves, I think people really think that the rainbow is possible.”

Despite his displeasure with the trend, he said, CBS is developing two new prime-time game shows: The $64,000 Question and What’s My Line . ABC, meanwhile, is developing a new one called Mastermind .

Warner Brothers Television, meanwhile, is developing a new game show for Fox that’s kind of like its current one, Greed . In this one, the audience will get a chance to vote a contestant off a show and split the winnings among themselves by answering questions.

Tonight, there are actually no game shows! But, on ABC, Once & Again , which is always kind of a crapshoot, returns after a brief stint off the air. [WABC, 7, 10 P.M.]

Warner Bros.’ Big-Idea Guy in L.A., Peter Roth