Mel's Diner: Mosko in Moscow, And Worlds Beyond

THE DISH: Steve Mosko is sitting outdoors at Santa Monica’s Kreation Kafe, fresh from a two-hour morning workout that includes yoga, spinning and Pilates, which he does every weekday—when he’s here. Since adding international TV operations to his oversight in 2009, the Sony Pictures TV boss is often somewhere else around the globe and is careful to not call Los Angeles the “home” office—“all of our offices are important,” he says. Recently, he spent three weeks in Europe visiting nine cities. In April he went to India, and in May he went to Tokyo to accept the CEO Award, the highest honor from Sony Corp., on behalf of SPT in recognition of Breaking Bad

SPT got another corporate nod of support with the board’s August rejection of investor Daniel Loeb’s push to spin off Sony’s entertainment assets. The war of words got ugly, with Loeb taking the company’s TV business to task for a lack of broadcast hits. And while Loeb’s comments were a reminder that the sailing in this business is often choppy, Mosko is also understandably feeling upbeat about being “a bit on the other side” of the overhaul of Sony’s domestic TV business he led 11 years ago. The latest part of that evolution has SPT debuting 15 new shows this year, its highest total in more than a decade. Among eight new scripted broadcast series are buzzed-about The Blacklist and The Michael J. Fox Show

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say there were still some battle scars from coming out of the agencies where people told me, ‘You guys are out of the business, you’re dead, you’ll never revive it,’ and ‘Why are you even sitting here in front of me,’ and people coming into my office crying,” Mosko says. “We’re still nowhere near where we want to go and we’ve got a lot to do, but, man, we’ve come a long way.” 

Edited highlights of the breakfast interview with the SPT president follow. 

I may have heard the words “event” and “limited series” 479 times from the stage at the summer TCA press tour. How does that business look to you? 

When we redid [Sony’s] TV business 11 years ago, we were the only studio that stayed in that business….People forget Hatfields & McCoys, that was ours….We’ve been in that business forever. We never got out….It’s appealing to people because you can get great material, it’s going to get great exposure and people are in and they’re out….And our international sales team is probably better at selling it than anybody. 

There’s a clamoring for viewership data, particularly from Internet TV players like Netflix. People say they feel it’s important for the industry so we know what’s working. Where do you come down on that debate? Does Netflix owe the business its data? 

No….I look at local station ratings right now and I wonder, are those accurate? They don’t look like it. And based on what I can tell…what Nielsen is doing to measure is not sufficient. I’m not happy with it and I think a lot of people aren’t happy with it. I think we’re all looking for what the alternatives are. If Netflix is happy and thinks its original shows are helping people subscribe to the service, then so be it. They don’t owe an answer to advertisers. To Wall Street, there are other factors they’re accountable for that they’re certainly dealing with. 

I know you long ago literally arm-wrestled to close a deal. Can you see anything like that happening today? 

Actually, Amy Carney [president, advertiser sales, strategy and research for Sony Pictures Television]—I’ve known Amy for 33 years—sent me an email last night saying, ‘You used to be fun.’ 

Have you ever armwrestled Amy? 

No. I do miss the days where I remember one of the biggest deals of my life was on the back of a cocktail napkin…. But I will tell you a funny story. On my first trip to Russia [four years ago], I was warned that if I didn’t do shots of vodka we would probably lose this deal we were doing. So I’m at this restaurant and I’m sitting across from this guy who was the guy and it was going to be a toe-to-toe drink-off. 

I excused myself to go to the bathroom, went to the waiter, handed him the equivalent of $500 and said, ‘What you bring me will be water and what you bring him will be whatever vodka he wants to drink.’ So it was a toe-to-toe drinking night for someone who at the end of the night was face down on the table. And it was all good for me. 

Did you get the deal done? 

Of course we did. Absolutely. Well, hopefully they won’t read this in Russia.

Let's talk about primetime. Certainly you have a very diversified business. This year you've had a better year than in a long time in terms of broadcast pickups-The BlacklistMichael J Fox. But a few years ago a big push didn't go as well. Seinfeld in syndication is still a big driver for you guys. So are hits in primetime on broadcast the big goal?

Yes and no. I think it would maybe be a mistake for me to say the whole goal of our company is to have a hit show on a broadcast network-for a number of reasons. Go back when we were in the situation where we were building our business. Sort of by default we were building brick by brick, we were one of the first studios to build a business around original scripted series in basic cable. HBO was already in it but when we had The Shield, we really invested in that business. And we've been very, very successful, as Breaking Bad will attest to. You can say arguably that will go down as one of the best shows in the history of television.

But you look at our company and overall see Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, the highest rated shows on television. We have Dr. OzQueen Latifah. Look at our cable business and how broad that is. And then our broadcast business, which is great. And then the long-form business. Then you have Jerry Seinfeld doing Comedians in Cars for Crackle.

Will that ever be destined for TV?

No it's meant for online, for Crackle.

So the point is, of course we want hits on broadcast networks. But the way our business is set up it's kind of like running a portfolio and having that be one part of it. It also tends to be the most difficult because there's more pressure on the networks to have these shows right out of the blocks. So frankly Pan Am-I mean that was a big show; yet I look back and it didn't do that bad but it would have been nice if we had a little bit more time to let it play out.

You look at a show like Breaking Bad, last year its ratings were up 71% as now we're going into its final piece.

The fall season is tough because there are so many new shows being launched, there's so much clutter, so much going on it's hard for people to find everything. And so anyway: We want hits in all these areas. 

We're very fortunate that a lot of things have panned out. I will say Community is coming back to NBC next year, it's going into syndication this fall. Rules of Engagement is in syndication. Unforgettable is a summer show at CBS. And Shark Tank is one of the all-time great stories of success on ABC. It's a great show and it's a great family show.

That's actually a great story. Years ago, we were not in the unscripted business as much as I would have liked and out of the blue I just called Mark Burnett and I said, "I need 10 minutes of your time. I just need to come talk to you. "And he said, "Great, come on up."

He just got back from vacation and he was tired and I said, "Look I need a hit in the reality world. You're the best. I want to do it with you. You find a format that you like in our library and I promise you we'll be able to make a deal." And I said that's it, that's all I got. And then I said I think we can make this work.

So long story short, I gave him all the formats and he came back and said, "Wow you have a show I really really like called Dragons' Den but I don't know that dragons work in the United States so let me think about it." And he said "sharks." So that went on its way. It literally came from a cold call to Mark Burnett. 

How important is it to find another marquee basic cable show as Breaking Bad winds down?

It's hugely important. Just to take a step back though, when you're selling shows internationally, when you're out pitching a show, the global buyers want hits, they want stars. So if you look at, for example, some of the shows that run on cable with the quality of the actors-whether it's Homeland or Breaking Bad-you see big-time actors. And we have Masters of Sex coming up on Showtime and we have Michael Sheen and he's a movie star. And anyway, so the quality of the work that comes from these basic cable shows is off the charts-as it is on the broadcast shows. So the quality of the work is there regardless of where it airs. So in terms of the next show we're doing, Masters of Sex, that premieres on Showtime at the end of September. It got great feedback at TCA so we're excited about that.

We're doing Outlander for Starz with Ron Moore [executive producer of Battlestar Galactica]. We're doing Helix for Syfy, which we're excited about. Never been in business with them. So we have a lot of good stuff coming out. And by the way, I'd love to tell you the next Breaking Bad is X. But we didn't know Breaking Bad was the next Breaking Bad. We knew we had something special there but ....

How important is the Playstation platform for your original programming?

We're working very closely with Playstation and Sony Network Entertainment to develop original programming. That's part of the beauty of a technology company, electronics company and a studio working closely. So we're in active conversations to come up with original programming.

Given your roots and passion for broadcasting, I'm curious how you think the business is doing looking for the next Steve Mosko, attracting bright people who want to work in TV?

Terrible. It's horrible. It's really bad. When I was a kid growing up I dreamed of being in this business. I think for lack of a better word, the Facebooks and Twitters and those people have done a better job of recruiting smart, passionate people than the television business. We need young minds in this business saying, "Ok, where's it going to go?"

It's also why I get so behind diversity programs at Sony. We need to get a more diverse group of people working in front of and behind the camera and we need to do it fast.

But I don't think we're doing a good job as an industry. That's why I like speaking at schools. That's why today as a matter of fact I'm speaking with all of our interns. We've gotta get the next generation excited about the television business. I'm trying to do my little part.