Q&A: Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko

Juggling multiple new projects in broadcast, cable, syndication and online, Sony Pictures Television President Steve Mosko is in a unique position to see how the challenged economy is affecting several aspects of the television business.

At presstime, SPT had nine scripted pilots at broadcast networks, was getting more involved in unscripted through recent acquisition Embassy Row, and was ramping up online destination Crackle. And after its coup of gaining Oprah Winfrey's partnership for the new Dr. Oz, SPT also has one of the best new hopes in first-run syndication.

Mosko spoke with B&C's Ben Grossman about operating his non-aligned company through the economic maelstrom hitting the business.

How are you dealing with the terrible economy?

The biggest problem right now, which we see as an opportunity, is all the people complaining how bad things are and how they are not like they used to be. But out of these times, you have to get organized and look for opportunities. It's like Wall Street; the only thing worse that could happen to investors right now is they miss the ride up. So you have to be prepared for when it comes back up. Is business tough? Absolutely. So do we have to adjust like everyone else? Of course. But as a company, we have to get focused on how to deal with where we are, and what to do when it comes back around.

How is the economy affectingdevelopment?

We did some research, looked at the economy, and found that what people are looking for is to laugh and be entertained. There is a huge opportunity for comedy in the marketplace. We are trying to round out our portfolio because we have so many great dramas in cable, so we wanted to get more comedies on the air.

What are you hearing frombuyers?

Everyone is concerned about the economics, where we produce and get tax credits and tax breaks, all those opportunities. In every conversation, it's about whether there is a better way to do it. The word “cheap” doesn't come up, but efficiency does. We are all in the same boat. No one is looking to cut corners for sake of quality, but we just sit down and produce more efficiently.

What does the consolidation of networks and studios mean for you?

I believe there will always be a place for an independent studio. I think you'll see less product being produced for a competitive network from the in-house studios. So if you pull that back because they may not buy from each other, they'll have to do some stuff with outside studios, which is great for places like us and Warner Bros.

What is the state of first-run syndication?

We have looked at the marketplace, and we think there are lots of opportunities in syndication. Shame on us as studios, but if you bring good product out, there will be a reception. We are as guilty as anyone; for instance, there are a lot of court shows and a lot of the same thing out there. So when we took out Dr. Oz, luckily it blew people away. They are desperate for great product. All you need to do is look at grids in markets.

So is this the end of the plethora of court shows?

We've been in the court show business for a while. Of any studio, we gave it a good run, but we just had to make some really tough decisions. In this economy, you really have to look at where you will put your efforts. Not to say we won't be in court somewhere down the road, but not at this particular moment.

Does the relative success of The Doctors bode well for Dr. Oz?

I want there to be lots of successful shows in syndication. All boats rise with the tide. Sometimes, syndication doesn't get the credit it deserves. The fact that way back when, Roger [King] brought The Doctors out, I think it's great for the business that it's working today. We're happy The Doctors is successful.

How is the development of Dr. Oz coming along?

Our relationship with Harpo has reenergized our entire company. We just did our first big videoconference call with [Mehmet Oz] and stations, and they are excited about getting resources from both companies behind the show. What was important to us is that we deliver not only what we promised, but a little more. We want everyone involved to know exactly what is going on so everyone can plan.

Are the economy and the struggles in the industry making people more risk-averse?
I think the opposite. Now people are making fewer bets, and the bets have to pay off. In the past, there was more a sense of “let’s do a lot.” Now people are trying to get the same results for a smaller number of pilots, I’m assuming. People are making fewer bets, so they’d better pay off. We used to do 20 pilots, but years ago when we brought that number back to nine to 12 a year, what ended up happening was the quality was better and there was more passion for the projects. We have to make these nine pilots great.

How are you adjusting to the struggling local station business?
Like anything else, you have to adjust to where the marketplace is. While we are sensitive to where the station business is today, I don’t think you see the great operators sitting in their offices with their doors closed. It’s monitoring the business, staying close to your customers. Over the years, we’ve had a good beat on the pulse of the marketplace.

How are things going with the acquisition of Michael Davies’ Embassy Row?
In terms of unscripted, we’re kind of going head-first into this business. We have Michael Davies, but we also have Harry Friedman, one of the great producers in television.