Kevin Reilly Must Be Very Smart

by Norman Horowitz

It was probably 40 years ago that my boss took home a copy of a pilot that we had made and called me into his office to tell me that his 14-year-old daughter Stephanie did not like it and that we should abandon the project. The show’s producer was with me and he was, to say the least, very upset. How could it be that the project’s future would be determined by a 14-year-old?

We never did produce the series. I bet that Stephanie (who would now be in her fifties) is unaware that she single-handedly killed the project.

There is certain “fragility” in the motion picture and television business. The person with the “loudest voice” will most often determine what gets produced.

And so, I found it amusing when Kevin Reilly, Chairman of Entertainment for the Fox Broadcasting Group, recently said that the networks “are too obsessed…with each other and not enough with the consumer.”

What Reilly won’t tell you is that executives at production companies and networks are expected to “know,” but they all secretly realize that they don’t know and they can’t possibly know all the time. The screenwriter William Goldman summed it all up when he said, “Nobody knows anything.”

I used to throw my management into a tizzy when they would ask if a particular program would succeed, and I would reply that I didn’t have a clue. The truth was, when I put millions of their dollars at risk, I couldn’t guarantee that the company would get their money back, never mind show a profit.

In fact, when I acquired the rights to my first off-network show for syndication in the late ’60s — Dan August, starring Burt Reynolds — I was asked whether it would be a success. I said, “Yes, it would,” and America said, “No, it won’t.”

In contrast, when I acquired the distribution rights to Barney Miller, several of the studio intelligentsia claimed that Hal Lindon couldn’t carry a comedy half hour. It was not that I was right about the program but rather that “the fates” were kind to me, and the show grossed a couple hundred million dollars or more for Columbia.

As a buyer and seller of content, all I could ever say was that I believed that I could sell a particular program. All I “knew” was whether the broadcasters I was selling stuff to might buy said content.

Years ago, I used to say, “Here I am, a forty-something Jewish electrical engineer from the Bronx with one wife, two kids and a dog who sells movies and television programs throughout the world trying to determine what thirty-year-old Christian mothers want to watch afternoons in Gary, Indiana.”

Compare that to Kevin Reilly lecturing his audience. “A lot of us have our head up our asses,” he said. “We’re looking too myopically at the business.”

It continues to annoy me that there are so many executives who pretend that they know stuff that the rest of us are unaware of.