The best time to take chances on risky programming is when a network's ratings have slipped significantly, a panel of network chiefs agreed Wednesday during "The Network Presidents" Newsmaker Luncheon at the Regent Beverly Wilshire.
"The best place to be is where you're desperate enough to take chances," NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly said during the event, which was presented by the Hollywood Radio & Television Society and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. "That's why I took the job -- I knew what I was in for. ... That's when you can do something fun -- what have you got to lose?"
Although Reilly acknowledged NBC's recent ratings slide, saying that "cable stole our thunder" in terms of edgy programming, he expressed confidence that the network will see a return to its previous top standing among the broadcast networks.
Fox Broadcasting Co. president of entertainment Peter Liguori said that taking chances on risky programming is in fact one way that broadcast networks can compete with cable and prevent more audience erosion to the cable networks.
"The networks need to be more courageous and compete with cable (in terms of seeking out) better talent and taking more risks," he said. "The audience will see the benefits of it."
UPN president Dawn Ostroff said that quality projects usually come from people who are especially passionate about their work and that it's oftentimes best to not interfere with them, citing her network's "Veronica Mars" and "Everybody Hates Chris" as examples of shows where the creators had specific ideas and were allowed to follow through on them.
"You have to be respectful of people's vision," she said. "You get something more pure when they have a vision and you get out of their way. Why get in their way when someone has got the road map in their mind?"
Moderator Dennis Miller posed a question about the future of reality television, with the panel agreeing that the best and most unique shows will continue to survive and thrive over time.
As an example, WB Network president of entertainment David Janollari said that the summer reality series "Beauty and the Geek" did well for his network, prompting WB to greenlight a second installment.
"It was successful because it was different and unique on the TV landscape," he said. "Reality shows will score if they are unique and different and have something to say with a unique point of view."
CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler noted that the reality genre has actually reached a certain point in its life span that other genres already have faced.
"We've talked about the death of drama, the death of comedy and now the death of reality. ... I think reality has just finally matured to the point where it's earned the right to be dead," she said.
The panel also addressed the impact of technology on television in terms of new methods of content distribution, like Apple Computer's new video iPod.
ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson said that such devices are not likely to replace the TV set altogether simply because of the nature of the technology but rather act as sort of a supplement to the TV viewing experience.
"It's something you use to catch up on shows on the train," he said. "You're not going to sit around a three-inch screen with your family watching shows."
Kimberly Speight writes for The Hollywood Reporter.
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