I was shuffling past the “Business Section” of the paper headed for a section I was more interested in when my eye was captured by a headline triggering what I quickly determined deserved further investigation.
The headline in question read:
“Autonomy ‘overrated,’ CEO says”
Directly beneath that headline, in larger print than the article itself, I found the capsulizing,
“CBS chief Leslie Moonves argues for traditional system.”
And “Game On.”
I have never spoken directly to Les Moonves, but once, in the early 90’s, we were participants on the same panel. The theme of the colloquium was the skyrocketing costs of television production and how to get them responsibly under control.
The panel included three or four – it was one of those two, not both, but I can no longer remember which – network and/or studio executives one of whom was Les Moonves, the then head of Warner Brothers Television, plus one member of the creative community, who happened to be me. I was surprised I was invited, and even more surprised I said yes. Maybe I felt flattered to be included. Maybe I felt needy for attention. Who knows? I am a neverending mystery to myself.
During the “Introductory Remarks”, I was the last one to speak. One by one, the other panelists – all television executives – blamed the zooming budgetary inflation on the excessive contractual demands of the “Creatives” delivering the programming. I recall – a facsimile at least – of my opening statement, which was the following:
“A number of very smart people have spoken before me. And they are apparently in unanimous agreement that the best way to curtail runaway production expenses in television is by cutting my salary.”
My observation earned a big laugh for that from the assembled gathering. Though I recall minimal guffaws from my fellow panelists.
The conversation proceeded to a discussion of how the recently arrived cable alternative was affecting the “Major Television Network” business. I recall saying that to my young daughter – then 8 or 9 – Nickelodeon was a major television network. Meaning, “To viewers, are there really any ‘Major Television Networks’ anymore?”
Towards the end of the proceedings, I made an audacious prediction. From the “Creatives’” perspective. And remember, this was in the early nineties, and groundbreaking cable shows like The Sopranos did not appear until 1999.
My prediction was this. Or something close to this:
“There will be a day when writers will be willing to accept less money in exchange for more creative control.”
To which a scoffing Business Affairs executive in the audience yelled out,
“Have your agent give me a call.”
Suggesting that he’d be happy to pay me less under any circumstances. Although, like the executives on the panel willing to slash my salary (but not theirs), this Business Affairs executive was willing to surrender not his – because he didn’t have any – but his company’s production executives’ creative control.
(It’s easy to give up other people’s stuff, isn’t it? Check out the middle class’s readiness to slash “Entitlement” payments to the poor.)
So here we are, almost twenty-five years down the line, and, according to this article, the identical battle continues to rage. It’s the networks versus – not just cable anymore – but all original content providers, including Netflix and Amazon.
At this recent conference, Creative Artists Agency President Richard Lovett said that, to those above-mentioned off-network outlets a key selling point for attracting top talent was the creative autonomy they provided.
To which CBS television television czar apparently replied,
“Autonomy is overrated.”
Now I don’t know if Moonves said that with a twinkle and the journalist covering the occasion simply missed it, or if Moonves was deadly serious, possessing numerous admirable characteristics but the capacity to “twinkle” not one of them. There is, however, a clue to which one it was later in the article.
Responding to the talent agency president’s implication that the networks’ notorious micromanaging encourages the most coveted talent to work elsewhere, Moonves quipped,
“I’m about to pick my schedule, so be careful.” (Meaning, I can keep your clients off of my network.)
I immediately identified Moonves’s rejoinder as a quintessential example of a “Power Joke.”
Definition of a “Power Joke”: An enforceable threat masquerading as lighthearted banter.
Here’s the thing.
Football players have been known to offer deliberately weak handshakes, fearing their inordinate muscularity would inevitably inflict bone-crushing “handshake injuries”. That’s how they handle it. They have a devastating weapon but keep it carefully under control.
People with devastating power? They also have two choices.
Some take advantage of the benign alternative.
Others simply take advantage.