Whenever I’d see Kelly Kahl at an industry event or a focus group I’d immediately go for the low-hanging fruit of connecting with what I knew what one of his greatest passions beyond his family and his career–his deep love for his native Wisconsin’s college football team, known as the Badgers. Immediately, I’d somehow try and channel the classic line from TREASURES OF THE SIERRA MADRE where, in response to Humphrey Bogart’s interrogation for credentials, a Mexican bandit called Gold Hat replies “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!
When he’d enter a room, I’d greet him with something along the lines of “Badgers! We DO Need Some Stinkin’ Badgers!”. Usually, it would be an icebreaker, and occasionally would even get a chuckle out of him. Kelly is as laser-focused and sharp as any executive I’ve known in my career, and his ascension to president of CBS in the wake of his mentor Les Moonves’ departure was seen by many, including myself, as well-deserved as any I’ve seen before or since. All he did in the five-plus years he held the position was lead CBS to number one in primetime, daytime and late night, both in traditional linear viewership and as the fulcrum for the burdgeoning multiplatform Paramount-verse which claimed to eclipse Netflix in total time spent.
Which is why yesterday’s news of his departure from the position, as announced by CBS CEO George Cheeks, was both surprising and upsetting. As Variety’s Jennifer Maas reported, it was part of a number of other moves that have sadly become commonplace these days in media companies seeking cost efficiencies as they struggle to gain traction and market share in an overcrowded streaming-centric world. Per Maas, Cheeks stated that Kahl’s exit is “part of a restructuring and streamlining of leadership” at the broadcast network. His top lieutenant, Thom Sherman, is also moving on, seguing to a production deal. In reading the fine print attached to Cheeks’ announcement to his team, as well as Kahl’s farewell letter, nowhere in either were words suggesting these moves were by their own choice.
Kahl is the third broadcast network president to depart this fall, joining the CW’s Mark Pedowitz and FOX’s Charlie Collier as former executives in an industry sector that appears to be increasingly marginalized by their corporate entities. And it is just a tad noteworthy that there seems to be a common demography among those that are being replaced. But I sense there’s something even more upsetting about these moves.
In all three of these cases, strategic thinkers with roots in the behind-the-scenes mechanics of media: Kahl in research and scheduling, Collier in advertising sales, and Pedowitz in business affairs, have been replaced by creatives. People who find and nurture shows and the people who make them. And as someone who has worked collaboratively and proactively with numerous such executives, I’m not diminishing for a second their importance in the supply chain. The way to win audience and engagement ultimately lies with the content that attracts both, and it is essential that those that have an art and flair to make it should be supported.
But most of the ones that have the greatest success in doing so have relied upon the genius of people like Kelly, his former CBS ally (and fellow Wisconsin native) Andy Kubitz, late of ABC, the survivors (for now) like NBC’s Jeff Bader and FOX’s Dan Harrison and, yes, at one time yours truly, to help them aim their quivers at the most point-heavy targets, supervise campaigns that best message opportunties, and set a battle plan from which total viewership ultimately germinates.
Even Parrot Analytics, which typically tries to purport that demand for content is information as valuable as actual consumption, recently penned a report that detailed at length the significance of broadcast success to the upside of streaming monetization and its ability to jumpstart originals on such platforms, As NAB Amplify reported last week:
Rather than disrupting the decades-old business model of getting moving picture entertainment into the home, streamers have been forced to realize that it was just TV all along.
Parrot Analytics goes a step further and says that the streamers have been propped up by broadcast for a decade. While it’s true that viewership to linear TV — notably the four US major networks — has shrunk in that time, its influence remains potent. Indeed, much as exhibition amplifies the overall take of the latest blockbuster in ways that no amount of publicity or streaming subs can buy, screening on TV amplifies the audience for content watched on-demand.
“Law & Order and NCIS aren’t sexy in an era of blockbuster franchise IP featuring superheroes and Jedi,” Parrot notes. “But broadcast content consistently appeals to broad audiences — at a fraction of the cost — at a time when streamers are battling for every last subscriber in a hyper-competitive market. Network titles are proven to fit well within the ad-supported format that is rapidly overtaking the OTT market.”
Parrot provides a wealth of stats to back its analysis up. For example, 15 of the 100 most in-demand TV series across all platforms year-to-date worldwide originated on broadcast networks. That number rises to 23 in the US alone, “a signifier of how significant the cultural footprint of these shows can truly be, particularly in the highly competitive domestic market.”
Does anyone left in charge of these companies realize who were those responsible for making those commodities successful in the first place?!?!?! Here’s a hint, it wasn’t just the creatives.
Kubitz has moved on, perhaps serendipitously, to Netflix. I’m pretty sure’s a streaming service out there that will embrace the likes of Kahl if they haven’t already–on his timetable, of course. Holidays, and the fact Wisconsin is trying to become bowl-eligible, probably take precedent.
Which brings up Kahl’s replacement, Amy Reisenbach. Her track record as a current executive with oversight of several dayparts is impressive, and she appears to be well-respected by her peers and collaborators. I don’t know her, but I did know her father, who was a top advertising executive that I crossed paths with early in my career, and I also knew her brother John, And if you were around New York City in 1990, you couldn’t avoid knowing his name, either. As Cynthia Littleton of Variety! recounted on the 30th anniversary of John Reisenbach’s murder:
Even for jaded New Yorkers, it was a shocking murder. For the television industry, the shooting thirty years ago today of 33-year-old advertising sales executive John Reisenbach was a gut punch and wake-up call.
Around 11:40 p.m. on July 30, 1990, during a peak of the crime wave that plagued in the New York City in the 1980s and early ’90s, Reisenbach was gunned down in an apparent robbery while he was using a pay phone in a booth around the corner from his apartment in the West Village. He was struck three times, twice in the chest and once in the leg, by .38-caliber bullets.
Reisenbach’s co-worker and intended business partner, Larry Schatz, was on the other end of the phone at the time and heard what sounded like a scuffle and the receiver hitting the side of the phone booth. Schatz called 911 to report that his friend was being mugged. Reisenbach was pronounced dead a half-hour later at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
“It took everybody aback for a long time,” says Ira Bernstein, co-president of Lionsgate’s Debmar-Mercury, who worked with Reisenbach early in his career. “It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forget.”
All these years later, Reisenbach’s murder remains unsolved. Despite Hollywood’s affection for cold cases, law enforcement experts say there’s little hope of new leads emerging any time soon.
Rather than dwell on the tragedy of his death, Reisenbach’s family and friends have worked since 1991 to honor his memory through a foundation that has a simple mission: to make New York City a better and safe place to live and work. The John A. Reisenbach Foundation has defied the odds against small nonprofits to thrive into its fourth decade as a distributor of grants to grassroots organizations that have direct impact on the lives of residents across the city. The foundation was rooted in the determination of Reisenbach’s father, longtime Warner Bros. marketing chief Sandy Reisenbach, to leave a proud legacy for his oldest child and only son.
So for as auspiced as Amy Reisenbach may be as an incoming network president, for my money she’s even more auspiced as a survivor and a humanitarian. She currently serves on the board of the foundation that supports her brother’s memory.
So for as sad as I am to see a friend depart, I am indeed rooting for Amy Reisenbach to continue his level of performance and perhaps improve upon it. She has certainly nurtured many of the shows that Kelly helped to make into franchises. Geeat organizations use and support braintrust along with sweat equity. To simply remove layers of discipline and demand more from less is, well, closer to the playbook of Twitter. I’m not sure anyone wants to emulate that environment these days,
Amy, I’d sure like to help you be great. I may not be a stinkin’ Badger. But I am a stinkin’ thinker. And this industry needs as many of us as they can get their hands on.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Humphrey Bogart.
Until next time…