Does Scott Sassa have the right moves to fix up a network plagued by irritated studios?
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Scott Sassa knows how to get noticed. Attending investment banker Herb Allen’s media-elite retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho, a few years ago, he wormed his way into Vanity Fair‘s annual gazillionaires photo (including moguls Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, et al.). You could tell Sassa didn’t really belong — he was the one wearing a name tag. ”I Forrest Gumped my way into that,” he recalls.

Though Gump-like in his knack for being in the right place at the right time, Sassa, 39, is no simpleton. His meteoric rise has already included posts under Barry Diller (as VP of network management at Fox), Ted Turner (as Turner Entertainment Group president), and billionaire Ron Perelman (as Marvel Entertainment CEO). All of which is peanuts compared with his latest coup: On Oct. 26, NBC prez Bob Wright appointed Sassa — then president of NBC’s TV stations — to succeed Warren Littlefield as NBC Entertainment president. (Littlefield, who still had two years left on his contract, got an NBC production deal — i.e., golden parachute — but no party.) Better yet, Sassa has already nailed his promotion. He’ll take over as West Coast president after Don Ohlmeyer’s contract expires at the end of ’99. Not bad for a guy whose first job (as a publicity flack at Rogers & Cowan) included picking up his boss’ dry cleaning.

Sassa may soon pine for such simple chores. NBC’s three-year ratings reign is seriously threatened: Viewership is down by 19 percent compared with the same time last year, thanks in large part to a disastrous drop-off in Thursday’s Must See numbers. Two weeks ago, the Peacock finished the week in fourth place — its worst performance in six years. Worse, it was bested by longtime ratings underdog CBS, which has beaten NBC in overall viewers three times this season.

Of course, none of the Big Four are exactly thriving, thanks to the issues challenging broadcast TV (viewers fleeing to cable, rising programming costs, etc.). And GE-owned NBC can claim one big advantage: It was the only broadcast net to make a profit last year, and it will likely do so this year. By all accounts, though, those profits are sure to tumble — by about 30 percent (an estimated $350 million versus 1997’s $500 million).

Moreover, profits can’t solve everything. The biggest battle facing NBC is one it’s currently waging with its content suppliers, the studios. The Peacock already has a bad rep for wanting to own as many shows as possible. Now it wants to ensure it doesn’t get fleeced on the shows it doesn’t own. That insurance would come in the form of a ”perpetual license fee,” meaning longer contracts (beyond the usual five seasons) and guarantees that the net won’t pay through the nose to keep a show — a la the $13 million per episode NBC agreed to pay Warner Bros. to keep ER.

But for studios, which don’t even see a profit until fees are renewed and reruns are sold, this would severely limit revenues. Sandy Grushow, president of Twentieth Century Fox TV, says his studio would work with NBC if ”the terms are fair and reasonable. Thus far, NBC’s proposals have fallen below that threshold.” Indeed, the Peacock’s inflexibility has provoked an industry-wide boycott: All major studios are balking at working with the net in developing shows for next season.

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