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Trib Boss Plays It Safe and Smart

Tribune Entertainment President and CEO Dick Askin knows that his business must change with the market. That is why Tribune Entertainment is a much different company today than the one he joined in 1996. And that is also why the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Emmy-organizing body he chairs, is giving itself a face-lift.

“My marching orders are to increase profits on an annual basis,” Askin says. “To do that, sometimes you have to make decisions that seem counterintuitive. Unless stations are dying for product, you sit out a year or two or until you think you have a product that is really worth the risk.”

But Tribune isn't sleeping; it is just resting. Askin says the company had its most profitable year ever, not by focusing on first-run strips and weekly hours but from distributing and selling barter time for other producers. For example, Fremantle Media produces the successful game show Family Feud, but Tribune distributes it and handles the barter sales. Tribune also distributes and handles barter sales in much of the country for Comedy Central's South Park, which Debmar Studios is syndicating.

Tribune leases out its top-of-the-line digital studio, and sells established product, such as the Hearst Entertainment library it acquired in 2002 and Dreamworks' 34-film movie package.

This fall, Tribune was also working on a revival of Real People, starring Mario Lopez, but the syndicator decided to shelve the show when it realized the costs were prohibitive. “The pilot was excellent and it got a good reception from the [Tribune Broadcasting] group, but we decided to continue to develop for daytime and see if there are ways of lowering the production costs,” Askin says.

The problem, says Askin, is that it is almost impossible to score above a 1.2 rating in daytime. Production costs are so high that it doesn't make financial sense to be there. That is why this fall NBC Universal made an early decision to cancel Home Delivery, a show that Universal had developed as part of an earlier pact with Tribune before it was bought by NBC. The network decided to go forward with the show after purchasing Universal, but the it soon discovered it was much more expensive to produce than they thought; Tribune had already come to the same conclusion and backed away from the show.

And while Tribune only has one first-run weekly hour in production—Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda—it is going ahead with a TV version of the theatrical release Legally Blonde, in conjunction with MGM, for fall 2005.

At the TV Academy, Askin is working to change the prime time Emmys to better reflect the face of television today. This past year, the Academy included a category covering only competitive reality shows, rather than handing out a catch-all reality award. “What we're doing right now is concentrating on ways to improve the show itself for next year, so it really reflects the marketplace and not just one aspect of the market,” Askin says. “We're also looking for ways to make the voting process more democratic.”

Askin wants producers to launch aggressive Emmy-marketing campaigns, much like they do for the Oscars. The reason: TV is one competitive business, something he knows firsthand.

“There are so many choices on television,” he says. “You really have to stand out in the crowd in any way you can to even be considered.”