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Why the number of Hollywood bosses has exploded

You used to be able to fit everyone who mattered in Hollywood into one room. Not now, writes Rob Long
Video-streaming sites like Netflix have revolutionised how television shows are made. AP Photo / Elise Amendola
Video-streaming sites like Netflix have revolutionised how television shows are made. AP Photo / Elise Amendola

You used to be able to fit everyone who mattered in Hollywood into one room. Not now.

For the past year I have been the executive producer of a popular comedy on a large American broadcast network. That used to mean something – or at the very least it meant that I could get a table at a hip restaurant, could get automatic upgrades on any airline and could, in general, act like an annoying big shot.

Not that I did, you understand. But not too long ago – say nine years ago, when I began writing this column – there were roughly a dozen television networks and studios. Being an executive producer of a popular show back then meant being a member of a very exclusive club.

Just a few years ago, only movie studios and television networks were in the business of making movies and television. Now, of course, there is a galaxy of new entrants into the entertainment business. So I shouldn’t have been surprised, a week ago, when I got a call from the two executives who run the television operation of the large entertainment conglomerate that employs me to produce my series.

It was a courtesy call. They were leaving the studio, they told me. And then added, in a listless tone that suggested they had made many such calls that day and were planning to make many more, that they enjoyed working with me and hoped our paths cross in the future.

When I asked them where they were headed – I could think of a few studios and networks that needed a refresh in the executive suite – they informed me that they were moving to Silicon Valley to run the television operation of one of the largest computer and mobile phone manufacturers in the world, which until that precise moment I could have sworn was not in the television business, mostly because the company and its executives had said repeatedly and emphatically that under no circumstances would they ever enter such a crazy and risk-filled business as creating, producing and (this part is key) paying for television content.

But, you know, things change. Once you’ve sold nearly every man, woman and child in the world an iPhone, you naturally turn your attentions to selling those same people something to watch on those devices. And that means hiring new teams, poaching Hollywood executives, building out new divisions and a lot more office space.

When I started my career in Hollywood – 27 years ago, but who’s counting? – you could fit every important player in the television business into the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, something which happened fairly regularly since people in Hollywood enjoy honouring themselves at awards banquets on a clockwork basis.

We all knew each other and if we discovered that we didn’t know each other we cheerfully lied about it and pretended that we did. It was a small, clubby group of folks. Executives were routinely given the sack at one studio and then instantly hired at another. Network presidents were shown the door with their pockets stuffed with exit cash, production deals and sinecures for life.

It was, in other words, not so much a competitive business environment as a benign oligarchy. And if you’re on the right side of the ledger, oligarchies can be lots of fun.

Innovation, though, eventually rears its ugly and disruptive head. Oligarchies are fated to collapse.

Satellite television blankets the world from the sky, and internet-based streaming video fills our computer screens with pretty much any kind of entertainment we want. Netflix, which a few years ago trafficked in actual DVDs, pumps hours of digital movies and original television shows throughout the internet.

Amazon, which began its ascent as an online bookshop, has become the world’s largest retailer and is now also in the entertainment business.

Facebook is developing and producing television series. Twitter has announced its first ventures in video programming. AT&T, the mobile phone service company, is buying Time Warner, mostly to get its hands on the content powerhouse of Warner Bros. And it turns out that my two favourite executives in the television business are leaving Hollywood and heading to Cupertino, California.

All of these revolutionary developments are exciting and dazzling to contemplate, especially from the outside. It’s clear that with more players in the entertainment industry comes more choice for the viewer and – if market forces work efficiently – more quality television available to everyone.

What it also means, unfortunately, is that people like me have suddenly found themselves in a more competitive and cutthroat universe.

You can no longer squeeze the key players in the television business into one large hotel ballroom, as you could in 2008 when I began writing this column. In 2017, you can’t even fit them into one large hotel, even if you could somehow gather them in one place from such remote and exotic locations as London, New York, Los Angeles and Cupertino.

It’s worth repeating that this is all to the good. The viewer – that’s us – benefits from this explosion of diversity and inventiveness. But spare a moment of pity for the executive producer – that’s me – who now has to make his money in the least appealing way there is. By earning it.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles

On Twitter: @rcbl

Updated: June 29, 2017 04:00 AM

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