A Few More Lists Get Shorter

It’s clearly an era of transition for my former colleagues at Sony.  Earlier this week it was learned that THE GOLDBERGS was sunsetting after a 10-season run, and tonight THE BLACKLIST will begin its tenth and final season on NBC.  The show’s tenure has outlasted those of quite a number of its cast members, one of its showrunners, and plenty of the executives who contributed to its success, yours truly included.

But as THE BLACKLIST begins its farewell, one of those executives in particular should be saluted, because for all the critical acclaim and accolade the show’s talents, led by its star James Spader, received, thanks to an executive who was raised as a competitive athlete in Delaware, the same school where a certain U.S. President also once studied and played competitive sports, THE BLACKLIST will go down as a groundbreaking series that arguably kicked the whole streaming wars business into high gear.

I first met Steve Mosko when he was covering West Coast markets for Sony TV syndication, fresh from a stint where he ran a TV station in Philadelphia that had recently purchased the rerun rights to the  show I had been consulting with, THE WONDER YEARS.  THE WONDER YEARS was not an easy sale to stations, many of which dismissed the show’s viability by incorrectly labeling it a “kids’ show” (for the record, the original version was the story of a 30-something man recalling his coming-of-age days that featured child actors and whose subject matter was aimed at–and connected–with people in that stage of life) and being openly dismissive of the company I worked for, Turner Program Services, a bastard stepchild in the Ted-verse that had acquired the rights to sell the show in the U.S.. from its producer, New World Television, because they lacked a domestic sales force at the time.  TPS wasn’t all that respected within its own company, limiting the resources that they were willing to give the sales efforts, and the marketplace was infatuated with chasing rights to the far higher-rated ROSEANNE as well as the plethora of sitcoms that Warner Brothers TV was selling at dizzying rates.

Over a few beers in a suite at the Oakland Mauseleum, mutual guests of a San Jose-based insurgent station that held local TV rights to the A’s, Mosko and I compared notes on how we both refused to take the first no as a definite answer.   He was still in touch with many of his former colleagues that were now running his old station, and he expressed support for the personalized touches I undertook in helping stations correctly identify and monetarily optimize THE WONDER YEARS, something he felt was lacking from most TV studios’ sales teams.  It was a day game, the A’s were awful, and the beer was tepid.  But I very much recall he never stopped asking questions, and we somehow connected.

As the next 20-something years unfolded, Mosko rose not only in the sales ranks, but ultimately to the top executive level at SPT, after a production-centric regime that preceded him fell out of favor with a budget-conscious home office.  The concept of even producing shows for broadcast networks was an anethema to those in charge, and Mosko’s sales and sports tenacity was identified as the kind of direction the studio wanted to undertake.  As he shared with Forbes’ Don Yaeger a couple of years ago, it was what he learned as a Blue Hen that ultimately returned Sony to production prominence:

Mosko had just come from Philadelphia to work at Sony Pictures Television when he found himself in a meeting in Los Angeles to discuss syndication with the producers of one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, “Seinfeld.” Present were not only the show’s producers but also Jerry Seinfeld himself. “I looked around the room and thought… what am I doing here?” Mosko told me in a recent episode of Corporate Competitor Podcast. “You know, just a couple weeks earlier I was in Philly, running a little TV station. And now, here I am with Jerry Seinfeld’s people looking at me for advice.”

And then the familiar phrase hit him: Act like you’ve been there before. The first time he heard those words came after he scored his first touchdown in high school and spiked the ball in excitement. The gesture cost his team a penalty and the chance for an extra point, but more importantly it cost Mosko a serious ear full by his coach Gerry Gray, a tough but big-hearted old bird in the Knute Rockne mold. Steve forgets most of Gray’s less than complimentary harangue, except for six words that remained tattooed on his brain: “Act like you’ve been there before!”

The sage advice from his old coach got him through the Seinfeld meeting and, more importantly, made him realize that he did belong in that meeting—and in a good many more meetings that resulted in some of the biggest television hits of the past 25 years, including “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul,” “Shark Tank” and many more.

Mosko and my paths crossed again when Sony stepped in to save THE SHIELD from a risk-averse FOX cable division that was balking at the price tag of producing an original drama.  Mosko borrowed a page from the playbook of some of his predecessors at Sony–identify an emerging marketplace where you can increase the amount of competition for a product, be willing to take a little risk in that insurgent, and with success you ultimately make your competitive set larger–plus you gain equity with the insurgent you helped become better.  FX’s mission was much in that spirit, and Mosko knew it,  FOX willingly–and, in hindsight, a bit too eagerly–gave up foreign, ancillary and domestic rerun rights in exchange for the investment they needed to facilitate production.  You all know what happened next.  THE SHIELD never made a lot of money domestically, but it was an international success, and allowed Sony to produce their own series for several other cable networks that they fully controlled.   And that success with cable series ultimately got Sony back into the broadcast network production business.

THE BLACKLIST was perhaps the most successful scripted drama of Mosko’s era.  The brainchild of who were lovingly called “the Johns”–original showrunner and creator Jon Bokenkamp and his partner, John Fox, the show added two more Johns–Universal TV’s John Eisendrath and John Davis, the son of onetime 20th Century FOX chairman Marvin, and a sale to NBC was completed.  The show’s dark look and complex storyline resonated with viewers and critics.  Wikipedia provides the synopsis:

Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader), an ex-US Naval Intelligence officer turned high-profile criminal and one of the FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives who voluntarily surrenders to them after eluding capture for decades. He tells the FBI that he has a list of the most dangerous criminals in the world that he has compiled over the years called the “Blacklist”, and that he is willing to inform on their operations in exchange for immunity from prosecution on condition he works exclusively with rookie FBI special agent and criminal profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone), to whom he seemingly has no connection.

With the knowledge that they had a significant piece of the back end, NBC gave THE BLACKLIST its premiere time slot, a Monday lead-out from THE VOICE at the peak of its popularity, and it was an immediate success.  And the price tag for off-network hours was on the rise.  Somehow, a reboot of HAWAII FIVE-O got an overly aggressive Turner to pay $2M an episode after just a few months on the air, and NCIS: LOS ANGELES, as the second spoke as what is still CBS’ top franchise, got an equally absurd amount from USA.  Mosko saw opportunity to take THE BLACKLIST to market on the heels of those kind of sales.

But to his dismay the reception from the marketplace, despite its strong overall and especially solid demo ratings, was tepid.   Potential buyers cited the show’s continuing storyline arc as a negative–despite the fact that each episode was self-contained, revolving around one particular criminal on Reddington’s list–and pooh-poohed the show’s performance as being almost completely lead-in driven.  This despite the fact that in delayed viewing, at the time a less acknowledged and necessarily monetizable metric than it is today, THE BLACKLIST had triple-digit growth deltas.

Mosko was determined to get at least as much, if not more, for his hit drama as Paramount and Universal were for theirs, both of which had taken advantage of business connections (TNT’s buyer had recently sold reruns for Paramount, USA had recently seen success with the original NCIS from the same studio) to goose their numbers.  But Mosko had a connection of his own, one that just happened to be an insurgent he had already carved out a relationship with.  As the prolific Nellie Andreeva explained to her DEADLINE readers in August 2014, less than a year after THE BLACKLIST’s debut:

EXCLUSIVE: In what is believed to be the biggest subscription video-on-demand deal for a TV series, I’ve learned that Netflix has acquired the rights to hit NBC drama The Blacklist from Sony Pictures TV in a deal that will net $2 million per episode. I hear Season 1 of the series starring James Spader will debut on the streaming service next weekend. As for future seasons, Netflix usually makes them available shortly after the season finales.

It is fitting that Sony TV is charting new territory in the broadcast space with the rich Blacklist deal. The studio was an early Netflix adopter, making one of the early series deals with the streaming service for its AMC drama Breaking Bad, which became one of the first Netflix mega hits and helped usher in the era of binge viewing,

Sony never did get a deal from a linear buyer that could cover its significant residual costs.  So we may never know how right or wrong that marketplace sector was in rejecting it.  But, again per Wikipedia, the buyers Sony did find were more than satisfied.

The series performed well on Netflix. In almost every country new seasons scored a place in the local Top 10 and usually remained there for more than a week. The eighth and ninth seasons had most notable performances in Romania, Greece, and DACH countries.[154]

And having exclusivity over broadcast was seen by Netflix as a particularly significant component of their deal.  THE BLACKLIST’s fan base is rabid, and many did indeed subscribe to the service to see the show when it was far more popular.  And it opened up the floodgates for other studios to sell their shows, even as part of tiered multi-platform non-exclusivities, to Netflix.  Netflix grew its portfolio, ultimately becoming the behemoth that all but drove those sellers into becoming their competitors, eventually clawing back a number of those early sales to feed their own beasts.  The pyrrhic war of attrition that has ensued this decade ultimately has its roots in the opportunistic sale of THE BLACKLIST by a studio that was ultimately wise enough to never start a streaming service of scale of its own (sorry, Crackle doesn’t quite register as “scale”), and to this day still keeps its own motor running with sales to Netflix at a time when a majority of other sellers have refused to deal with them.

One of their most recent library sales to Netflix just happened to be SEINFELD.  It was a relatively easier sale than was THE BLACKLIST’s, so I was told.  Because, after all, all Sony had to do was listen to Steve Mosko’s lacrosse coach.  They–well, at least Netflix– had indeed been there before.  All Mosko’s successors had to do was act like they were.

Mosko’s “reward” was ultimately the title of chairman of the TV division .  But then, as Meg James and Ryan Faughndner reported in the Los Angeles Times in June 2016:

Sony Pictures Television Chairman Steve Mosko is leaving the company after more than two decades building the Culver City television operation into a quiet giant behind such hits such as “Breaking Bad,” “The Blacklist” and “Jeopardy”.

His abrupt and unexpected exit Wednesday comes just nine months after Mosko was promoted to chairman of Sony Pictures Television after serving for years as president. The promotion recognized his value to Sony’s entertainment business and his steady hand during the 2014 computer hack that roiled the studio.

It was our own history, forged decades earlier while he rocked shorts at that god-awful A’s game, that had allowed me the chance to be part of his team.  Shortly after a chance meeting in a Game Show Network elevator after a board meeting he attended, at a time when I sorta knew my days there were coming to an end, that ever-present light bulb went off in Mosko’s head.  “You know, we’re way overdue for a lunch”, he offered.  Even after I shortly was dismissed from GSN, Mosko kept that lunch date with me.  Over some tepid Indian food, we recalled how we shared not only first names, but the tenacity of underdogs.

I saw first-hand how he personally resurrected morale and trust after the violations of the computer hack compromised his employees’ lives; GSN e-mails were part of that hack.  I knew how much his team valued his leadership.  To see Steve in action lording over a floor full of loyal workers, ever-present in back-slapping, encouragement, and whooping loudly when overnight ratings were strong was to experience a real leader.   After he left, the floor became a lot quieter, many of those desks became empty, and while there were plenty of successes to celebrate, the fun of celebration diminished greatly under his successors.

Mosko’s doing more than fine these days as chairman of Village Roadshow Entertainment.  They’re making a sequel to THE JOKER, and they’ve sold a few TV shows as well.   And Steve still looks like he can still barrel through a defensive line when needed.

We’ve both been on a few blacklists of our own.  But even as Red Reddington’s quests come to an end, neither one of us have yet to be fully taken out.  And while it’s easy to lay blame on Netflix for starting a spending spree that has ultimately led this industry to this spiral of billion-dollar losses that have left thousands of people we both knew blaming someone who wouldn’t take no for an answer for getting his own job is simply as erroneous as the evaluations others in charge made on both of us at times when we were simply better at what we were tasked with that were they.

Mr. Mosko, we’re overdue for another lunch.  Maybe Spader can treat us both?

Until next time…


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