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Fast Track

Ex-NBC U exec new communications director

Bush Picks Another Broadcaster for PR

The White House is calling on another broadcaster to help get its message out.

Kevin Sullivan, former senior VP of corporate communications and media relations for NBC Universal, has been named White House communications director. That puts him in the West Wing and makes him the real-life counterpart to Toby Ziegler from Sullivan's favorite show, NBC's just ended The West Wing.

Sullivan's tenure will begin July 24, but, “I won't be bouncing a tennis ball off the wall,” he tells B&C, referring to Ziegler's nervous habit on the show. He replaces Nicolle Wallace, who left at the end of June.

Sullivan left the Peacock in April 2005, appointed by the president to be assistant secretary of education, communications and outreach. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is a Sullivan fan and goes back a long way with President Bush. He was approached about the job by Dan Bartlett,
former communications director and now counselor to the president .

Sullivan will be overseeing strategic communications and long-range planning, handling contacts with regional press while Press Secretary Tony Snowe deals with the White House press corps and their daily briefing.

Sullivan can also talk Texas sports with the president, who once owned a piece of the Texas Rangers. Before joining NBC in 2000, Sullivan spent 17 years with the Dallas Mavericks, leaving as VP of communications.

Snowe, an ex-Fox newsman, was brought aboard in May, and former ABC newsman J. Dorrance Smith joined as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs a few weeks before. — John Eggerton

NBC Profit Plunges

Operating profit dropped dramatically for the broadcasting side of NBC Universal during the second quarter. In an earnings report Friday, parent company General Electric didn't disclose a lot of detail but said that operating profit at NBC's primetime, station and TV-production units plunged 45% from the same period last year. NBC has been hammered in the ratings, and its audience has shrunk 30% over the past two years. Ad sales at the network and its stations have followed suit.

NBC's problems were enough to offset the strong results at its sibling cable-network and movie divisions and cut profits for GE's whole NBC Universal division 10% to $882 million. NBC U's revenues were flat at $3.8 billion. In a conference call with investors, GE CFO Keith Sherin said NBC U's performance is just where the company had forecast. Although the third quarter should be just as bad, Sherin predicts a turnaround during the fourth quarter, partly because NBC will start airing NFL games in primetime in the fall.—John M. Higgins

Lionsgate Buying Debmar-Mercury

Independent TV distributor Debmar-Mercury will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Lionsgate, an independent Canadian studio, in a deal believed to be worth $27 million, including the $5 million allocated for Debmar- Mercury to repay its debt.

According to industry sources, Debmar-Mercury, which already handles some Lionsgate product for the domestic TV market, had been in discussions on a sale with several studios, including Warner Bros. But they offered company principals Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein less money and autonomy—effectively making them company employees—than Lionsgate did.

The deal includes a provision allowing them to do business with other studios if Lionsgate passes on a project.

For Lionsgate, the deal extends its relationship with actor/writer/director/producer Tyler Perry (Diary of a Mad Black Women, Daddy's Little Girl) from feature film and video to television. Debmar-Mercury is negotiating to sell 100 first-run episodes of Perry's comedy House of Payne, which it has been testing in 10 markets, to the Fox stations for 2007 and '08 as a weekday strip.

Debmar-Mercury also distributes Comedy Central's South Park, Lionsgate's The Dead Zone, Sci Fi Channel's Farscape (produced by Hallmark Entertainment and Jim Henson Co.), and two feature-film packages from Revolution Studios and Lionsgate.—Jim Benson

Fox, Turner Play Ball

Fox Sports is keeping the World Series, All-Star Game, a Saturday regular-season game and a League Championship Series game while Turner Sports has landed both Divisional Series and a new Sunday regular-season game for TBS, according to deals announced last week by Major League Baseball and the two networks. The seven-year deals begin in 2007.

Sources with knowledge of the deals say MLB has commanded an overall increase from the $417 million it received annually from Fox's current six-year deal.

Fox's portion of the deal is said to be about $250 million annually, with the remainder coming from Turner and possibly one other partner. Still to be determined is the home for the other League Championship Series, for which Turner Sports is thought to be a front-runner.—Ben Grossman

USDTV Goes Belly Up

Despite backing from some of the country's largest station owners, broadcast wireless cable company USDTV has run out of money and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.

Two years after Salt Lake City-based USDTV rolled out its first market, the company has lined up just 16,000 subscribers to its low-cost, low-end packages of “cable” networks in four markets. But it burned through $26 million in equity invested last September by broadcasters including Fox Television Stations, Hearst-Argyle and LIN TV and is loaded with an estimated $14 million in debt.

Control of the company has been surrendered to Alfred Guiliano, the federal bankruptcy court trustee in Delaware, where USDTV filed its bankruptcy petition.

John Carroll, an attorney representing the trustee, says that Guiliano is close to securing financing to keep USDTV's system going in hopes that it can be sold to an investor group.

USDTV's plan called for pooling the spare digital spectrum of three or four local broadcast stations in a market to air a $20 monthly package of “cable” networks.

Since 2004, USDTV has launched in Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, N.M., Las Vegas and Dallas but lacked the cash for intensive marketing. The company has 7,000 customers in Dallas, 5,000 in Salt Lake City and 2,000 each in the other markets.—John M. Higgins

LIN Taps Sandusky

Station owner LIN TV Corp. has named former CFO Vincent Sandusky CEO. He replaces Gary Chapman, who retired July 10.

Sandusky will also take Chapman's board seat and retain his CFO duties until a replacement is found.

Sandusky has done service as LIN's CFO and as VP and treasurer, since 2004 and previously was CFO for Telemundo, working closely on its sale to GE/NBC.—Allison Romano

Cable News From TCA

The Television Critics Association summer press tour kicked off last week at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton.

Some highlights:

•Former CBS anchor Dan Rather praised the increased “control” he got over the work at his new post with Mark Cuban's HDNet. His hour-long weekly investigative series Dan Rather Reports
is slated to debut in October.

Ted Koppel, beamed in via satellite for a Discovery Channel panel, will host Security and Liberty, the first of several annual specials he and partner Tom Bettag are producing for Discovery and premiering Sept. 10.

A&E renewed Criss Angel Mindfreak for a third season.

E! ordered a fifth season of The Simple Life and will launch celebrity Claymation series Starveillance, from Celebrity Deathmatch mastermind Eric Fogel, in January 2007.

FX ordered a 13-episode fourth season for its original drama Rescue Me. The Sony Pictures Television series is slated to begin production early next year and launch in the second quarter of 2007.

HBO is canceling Rome after season two and considering a spring debut for The Sopranos' final season.

TNT signed Michael Keaton as one of the stars in upcoming limited series The Company, based on Robert Littell's best-selling book.

Sci Fi Channel is developing hour-long conspiracy thriller Devil's Advocate with Mark Burnett and DreamWorks Television, in addition to Witch Doctor.—Anne Becker