The Streaming Era Has Blown Up the Traditional TV Hierarchy. Now, Everyone Wants to Know: Who Do I Call?

Michael Schneider
·12 min read

For decades, a TV rite of passage took place every September at the Hollywood Radio & TV Society’s entertainment presidents’ luncheon. On the eve of the fall season, the three, then four, then six heads of programming at the broadcast networks would gather on the HRTS dais and set the tone for the year: They’d share insights on the freshman shows they were keen on, which potential hits they wished they could steal from a rival and the latest trends to look out for.

Those were the days when entertainment presidents were practically household names — figures like Fred Silverman, Brandon Tartikoff, Bob Iger, Leslie Moonves and Warren Littlefield (until Jamie Tarses in 1996, it was all men). It was the perch that almost everyone in TV aspired to, the job of being one of the most powerful buyers in the biz.

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But as the industry began to change, TV’s org charts got more complicated. The networks were consumed by larger conglomerates that were more focused on Wall Street and the bottom line. That meant the domains of showy entertainment presidents with their golden guts began to shrink.

Then came the streaming revolution, followed by a frenzy of corporate restructuring — and in some cases, restructuring of previous restructuring. That’s left many in Hollywood confused about how modern programming departments work inside the conglomerates that dominate the industry. Whereas once upon a time every network was set up similarly, now each corporate giant has a different quirk about its hierarchy and reporting structure. Often, the streamlining has actually led to more layers.

“It has taken a beat,” says Sony Pictures TV president Jeff Frost. “It’s a little more confusing. The good news is that we have relationships with all these people. So it’s not like having to start from scratch in creating that relationship, but it has been confusing in terms of ‘So who do I talk to about this issue?’ And sorting that out has taken a little time and a little figuring out.”

That goes for the rep world as well. UTA partner Dan Erlij (speaking at a recent HRTS virtual open house, coincidentally) notes, “Figuring out who’s in charge of what can be a little bit challenging.”

The COVID-19 pandemic gave companies more cover to pull the rip cord, perhaps sooner than expected, and redesign their reporting structures in a way that de-emphasizes linear networks — once the center of the TV universe — as nearly everyone bets on a streaming future.

At Disney, the reorg was complicated by the acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox’s assets, including 20th Century Fox TV and FX Networks, along with the launch of Disney Plus and the transition at the top from Bob Iger to Bob Chapek. That’s led to several rounds of changes and the birth of divisions with clinical names like “Disney General Entertainment Content” — which includes the programming and marketing arms of ABC, Hulu, FX Networks, Freeform, 20th TV, ABC Signature studios, Disney Channel networks and National Geographic Partners — and “Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution,” which handles the logistics of running the linear networks, ABC-owned stations and streamers Disney Plus and Hulu. Peter Rice runs DGEC, while Kareem Daniel is head of DMED.

Under DGEC is Walt Disney Television Entertainment, run by chairman Dana Walden, and Disney Branded Television, overseen by Gary Marsh. Here’s where it gets more confusing: Reporting to Walden is Hulu Originals and ABC Entertainment head Craig Erwich, even though not all of Hulu is considered part of DGEC. And in addition to programming for Disney’s kids networks, Marsh’s oversight includes unscripted for Disney Plus, though it too is not technically a part of DGEC.

Erwich says balancing ABC and Hulu allows him to “make sure we have the right show on the right platforms for the right audience,” but the two have very different network cultures — both on air and in corporate structure. “I’m going to be honest: I’m still not entirely certain of the org chart at the Disney company,” one agent says.

Says another exec: “I have no idea how people decide what they want to put where. Sometimes you’ll pitch to Hulu and FX and they’re both interested but they can’t compete with each other, and then there’s Disney Plus and they’re all under the same umbrella. You’re kind of like, who’s responsible for what? It does get tricky.”

At NBC, the new structure is likewise split between programming and distribution: As chairman of entertainment content for NBCUniversal Television and Streaming, Susan Rovner now oversees original programming for NBC, Bravo, E!, Oxygen, Syfy, USA Network, Universal Kids and the new Peacock service. But Frances Berwick, the chairman of entertainment networks for NBCUniversal Television and Streaming, oversees the day-to-day operations of those channels.

“We hear a pitch and we absolutely love it — we have eight platforms to really look at and say, how do we support this great show?” Rovner says. “To me, that’s the biggest appeal, and I know it’s different, and you have to explain it to people. But I think it’s going to really result in better content.”

If there have been any hurdles for Rovner, who arrived at NBCUniversal last fall after 20 years as a studio executive at Warner Bros. TV, it’s the sheer amount of work that comes with juggling shows for eight networks. “I will say the volume is [large],” she says. “I’m learning a lot of schedules. When there was one network president, they had one schedule to worry about!”

Rovner points to the synergies that come with dropping the network distinctions and serving as a single development hub for the company: The drama pilot “Dan Brown’s Langdon,” based on the series of books about a Harvard professor of religious symbology, was originally developed for NBC, but Rovner was able to quickly move it to the Peacock track when she decided it better fit the streamer. In the past, that would have required a handoff from one network team to another.

“I think the way people view television has changed,” Rovner says. “I don’t know that they’re not going to necessarily sit down and watch a traditional network lineup; it’s much more about the show. So I think the structure actually reflects more how people are viewing.”

Other recent massive reshuffles include the one at ViacomCBS. Among the revised divisions is MTV Entertainment Group — renamed just months after being launched as the ViacomCBS Entertainment & Youth Group — which includes MTV, VH1, CMT, Logo, Comedy Central, Paramount Network, Smithsonian Channel, TV Land and Pop TV. They all now fall under the purview of Chris McCarthy. However, much of the output from his team is actually no longer headed to those linear channels but rather to outlets like Paramount Plus, which has its own leadership team under streaming president-CEO Tom Ryan.

The shift to singular content groups has occurred as it has become apparent that much of these congloms’ value now hinges on their streaming strategy. “It’s a recognition that you’ve got to be really thoughtful about how you manage your content,” says Michael Wright, head of Epix and MGM Scripted Television. “It’s not just about someone’s divisional P&L anymore. It’s how does this piece of content serve the larger corporate purpose, which more and more is the launching of a streaming service.”

Hence the decision at companies like NBCUniversal and Disney to separate the content execs from the business-focused teams overseeing the growth and expansion of their platforms.

“What makes it a little different now is there’s often a businessperson who might be sitting in a different area of the company, and that person now has more responsibility over the business aspects than they might have had in the past,” Frost says. “It’s kind of the Silicon Valley shift of focusing more on the business, making sure that the business doesn’t get lost in the creative.”

At AT&T-owned WarnerMedia, there also have been growing pains as the company adjusts its structure — particularly to place most of its focus on the nascent HBO Max streaming service. Following Hulu co-founder Jason Kilar’s appointment to the top of WarnerMedia last year after some years away from Hollywood, there have been whispers about whether the Silicon Valley exec has the same breadth and depth of connections others have in a town built on relationships. Major structural shifts followed his ascension, notably the ouster of top brass and longtime programming execs Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly. But filling that void of familiar faces was another one: HBO head Casey Bloys, who now oversees originals for the prestige cabler as well as HBO Max.

Ever since HBO lent its good name to the streamer, questions have inevitably sprouted about what constitutes an HBO show versus an HBO Max program, and whether there is any brand confusion.

“The No. 1 concern is that agents know who to pitch their clients to,” Bloys told Variety in February. “So when this reorg happened in August, we went around to everybody and tried to make clear: This is the setup; this is who’s covering what. But I always try to say our org structure shouldn’t be your problem, so call who you’re comfortable with, and we’ll figure it out. Communicating as clearly and as frequently as possible the new structure — until people get a handle on it — is probably the best thing you can do.”

Echoing that sentiment is ICM agent and partner Adam Schweitzer, whose team has met with Bloys and HBO Max head of original content Sarah Aubrey virtually during the pandemic.

“It has been helpful during COVID to meet over Zoom with many newly restructured companies and get a better understanding of what their goals are,” says Schweitzer. “HBO is a perfect example — we sat down with Casey [Bloys], Sarah Aubrey and their team. It was easy for them to explain what kind of projects is HBO looking for versus HBO Max. What should we be approaching you with? What are you looking to accomplish this year?”

Frost welcomes the chance to pitch a project to one person who has several outlets to direct it to. “We’ve embraced it because it really does give us more opportunities,” he says. “When you’re pitching in one place, there’s a lot of different options now, as opposed to just the one option. [Or] you can talk to them about a multiplatform approach for the content. So that maybe it’s an ABC show that takes a run on Hulu. Or it’s a show that’s on Paramount Plus, but they’ll take a network run on it. It opens up the business model as opposed to what it used to be, which was very narrow.”

Of course, corporate restructuring is nothing new in the TV business. In the name of synergy, networks and sister studios began merging operations — or, at least, started being grouped under the same oversight — in the 2000s. Those with long memories may recall the trend of dissolving current programming departments in the 1990s, in favor of teams that would oversee shows from development through their entire life cycle. But slowly the networks shifted back to keeping development and current separate.

“Executives come and go; studios get eliminated or consolidated; people move from studios and networks and vice versa,” says “The Good Place” creator Michael Schur. “There’s always a little bit of that going on. I think it has accelerated recently because of this sort of new really vertically integrated world we’re in.”

Schur says the first few months of an organizational shift “can be a little weird [when] you suddenly realize you don’t know who to call.” He’s based at NBCUniversal, and says that when Rovner took over, there was a concerted effort to explain the changes to producers and creatives set up at the company.

“That doesn’t mean it’s effortless or completely smooth,” he says. “There have been moments where it’s been a little bit unclear who was in charge of which little division. And then it was made doubly so by COVID. But at least within Universal, they’ve been really good about trying to keep everything straight and trying to say, ‘Look, here’s the way this is going to work now; this is who you talk to for this. … I feel like it’s just new right now, and I hope and believe that we’ll get used to it pretty quickly.”

As the dust settles, will networks begin to revert in certain cases to their old playbooks? Old TV habits are hard to break, and some note that, ironically, Netflix has started to restructure with more traditional divisions as former network execs like Bela Bajaria take over. “We can wrap our arms around it,” says WME partner Marc Korman of the streamer’s current setup.

But perhaps the industry is also getting used to the new way of doing business, as it reaches the decade mark of the streaming revolution. These changes may have been the shock to the system necessary to accelerate the transition away from the already rapidly declining linear businesses.

“This is something of a reset year for the entertainment industry,” Wright says. “Because of COVID, everything is being blown up. I think some companies are able to do things they probably would have had to put off for two, three, four or five years.”

Elaine Low contributed to this report.

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