Anaheim, Calif. -- With empty seats at the head of threebasic networks, the Western Show here last week was abuzz with speculation over who wouldfill the vacancies.
The latest departure -- that of Lifetime Televisionpresident Douglas McCormick -- was officially announced last week, days after word leakedover the Thanksgiving holiday that the network's board of directors would not renewhis contract at year-end.
Under McCormick's watch, Lifetime has grown into a 73million-subscriber network valued at about $3 billion. But whether it's succeeded inbuilding a strong brand for women remains a topic of much debate.
The other vacancies that have the industry guessing are atComedy Central and E! Entertainment Television. Comedy president Douglas Herzog is leavingto become president of entertainment at the Fox broadcast network, and Masters isresigning from E! to became president and CEO of Liberty Media Group's LibertyInteractive unit. One source familiar with the search said Masters' replacement couldbe named as soon as this week.
McCormick attended Masters' farewell roast at theshow, as did the woman who some say indirectly helped to grease McCormick's skid outof Lifetime: Geraldine Laybourne.
McCormick's pending exit from Lifetime in some wayswas reminiscent of Erica Gruen's recent and abrupt departure from Food Network. BothLifetime and Food saw their ratings and revenue multiply and soar during the past fewyears, under McCormick and Gruen, respectively, which made industry insiders questionmanagement's desire to install new presidents at those programming services.
CBS News veteran Eric Ober replaced Gruen. McCormick'ssuccessor remains the object of conjecture, with the names of Lifetime executives DawnTarnofsky and Jane Tollinger already surfacing.
There's been an inordinate amount of turnover amongtop executives at cable networks this year. Some of it can be blamed on a spate of networkacquisitions and the desire of the new owners to put in their own teams -- includingScripps Networks' decision to replace Gruen at Food.
Kay Koplovitz left USA Networks Inc. -- as did herpresident of entertainment, Rod Perth -- when Barry Diller began flexing his muscle,bringing in Steve Chao to head programming. The restructured ownership of CourtroomTelevision Network hired Henry Schleiff as president. And Rich Cronin became president andCEO of Fox Family Channel under the new ownership, essentially replacing Tim Robertson.
The rumor mill was alive and well at the show: Thegrapevine was whispering Perth's name as a possible replacement for Masters,Gruen's for the Lifetime post and even McCormick's for Comedy.
Comedy's management, sources said, wanted MTV: MusicTelevision general manager Van Toffler for Herzog's job, but he wasn'tinterested. Another candidate, MTV executive vice president of programming Brian Graden,was tied to his MTV deal.
Larry Divney, Comedy's executive vice president, andEileen Katz, its senior vice president of programming, were reportedly interested in thejob, as were extreme long shots Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the network'sSouth Park.
McCormick's exit from Lifetime, although puzzling tosome, reflected the convergence of several factors: the expiration of his contract; thethreat of Laybourne's new women's network, Oxygen; and the ascension this yearof Disney Channel president Anne Sweeney to president of Disney/ABC Cable, replacingLaybourne after she went out on her own this past spring. Sweeney is chairman ofLifetime's board, which includes five representatives from each of its owners, TheWalt Disney Co. and Hearst Corp.
Disney officials declined to comment, and Hearst officialscouldn't be reached for comment. But the board, according to sources, opted not torenew McCormick's contract at a meeting Nov. 24.
In a memo to Lifetime's staff last week, McCormick putthe best face on the situation, saying that he was resigning "after muchthought."
In his memo, McCormick said he and his staff had workedtogether to "establish our network as the pre-eminent brand in television forwomen." During his tenure, Lifetime's revenue quadrupled, and its primetimeviewership jumped 110 percent.
Lifetime's owners, according to a Disney source, arelooking for an executive who has a "new vision" for the network -- someone whocan take Lifetime to the next level going into the millennium. The source maintained thatLifetime tested poorly in recent focus groups, and that women weren't making aconnection to it, even though its ratings are strong.
"It is not a channel with the strongest brand,"the source said. "It had nothing to do with Oxygen. It was probably destinedanyway."
Lifetime insiders and others didn't buy thatexplanation. They considered the criticism amorphous when compared with the solid measuresof success that Lifetime has attained. Certainly, McCormick built Lifetime into a valuableasset. In 1993, Viacom Inc. sold its one-third interest in Lifetime for $317 million.Today, based on multiples of 15 to 16 times cash flow, the network would be valued atabout $3.5 billion, sources said.
"I think Doug did take Lifetime to the nextlevel," one veteran cable-network programmer said. "[The nonrenewal of hiscontract] very much a reaction to Gerry [Laybourne and her Oxygen plans]."
Lifetime insiders bristled at criticism that theyhaven't built a strong women's brand. The network commissioned research inOctober in which 33 percent of the respondents rated Lifetime as "excellent,"compared with only 16 percent when McCormick took on the job in 1993.
And in Lifetime's press release on McCormick'sexit, feminist Gloria Steinem said, "Women have truly benefited from Doug'stenure at Lifetime."
But despite the research and accolades, some cableoperators have long complained that Lifetime has failed to create the kind of emotionalconnection to women that a network like Nickelodeon, for example, has forged with kids.
Several years ago, based on that complaint,Tele-Communications Inc. dropped Lifetime from a number of systems. Lifetime orchestrateda campaign to get the network restored, rallying women's groups behind it.
One MSO programming official complained that Lifetimeveered off its true mission when it made "women-in-peril" movies one of itstrademarks. Lifetime launched a digital network, Lifetime Movie Network, based on itsmovie franchise. The MSO official has high hopes that Laybourne -- by partnering withOprah Winfrey and TV producer Marcy Carsey -- will make that close tie with women.
Laybourne, who had taken veiled potshots at Lifetime beforecoming to Disney from Nick, was a mentor to Sweeney. And it's cable's worst-keptsecret that Laybourne and McCormick don't particularly get along, even though theygraciously exchanged pleasantries at Masters' roast.
While McCormick's admirers viewed his departure as anassassination by Disney, Disney sources kept stressing that co-owner Hearst agreed to thedecision.
Odds are good that a woman will get McCormick's job,since the issue of Lifetime being headed by a man has always been a somewhat sensitiveone. Sources denied reports last week that Sweeney planned to take over McCormick'spost at Lifetime.
McCormick, who said he's gotten job offers already,wants to take his time and weigh his options."Clearly, this is my industry," hesaid. "I love it. It's where my heart is. It's where my friends are."