The Men Behind the Screens
These TV Executives Show that Not All Cigar-Smoking media Moguls Are in Film
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98
Hollywood and cigars. It's a natural pairing: the good life with a little roguishness thrown in. But it's always the movie moguls that people envision with smokes jutting from their mouths. Truth is, television has sprouted its own share of cigar-chomping tycoons as the industry has become a multibillion-dollar global business that's as volatile and unpredictable as film.
Competition for network time slots is fierce--generated more and more by producer track records, relationships and scheduling needs than program content. New shows get only a few airings to prove themselves before they're yanked for backup material. Actors and executives get only a couple of development seasons to hit it big before they're replaced. Meanwhile, rising actor and production costs, and increasing political pressure on content, make program financing riskier.
What's more, the terrain is changing. No longer just a three-network landscape, the proliferation of programming outlets in cable and satellite TV has network and studio chiefs and producers scrambling to create shows that cut through the noise and hone networks into identifiable brands and overseas franchises.
Cigar Aficionado talked to some of TV's driving forces about their take on the industry--and their favorite smokes.
Doug McCormick spends his days surrounded by women.
As president and chief executive officer of Lifetime Entertainment Services, which includes Lifetime Television and the new Lifetime Movie Network, McCormick heads a primarily female team creating programs for a primarily female audience. "When people say, 'What's a man doing running Lifetime?' I answer, 'Does that mean a 10-year-old should be running Nickelodeon?' Actually, it's the second best job I've had in my life," McCormick says. "The best was a high school job delivering flowers to people. You've never seen so many smiles on so many faces. Of course, this is a better career move."
Lifetime's focus is representative of how television channels, particularly cable, are branding themselves and targeting specific audiences to cut through the explosion of programming outlets and grab viewers.
"The need for branding came about with the proliferation of satellite communications," says McCormick. "There was no need for the broadcast networks to brand themselves in the 1950s, because you were channel 2, 4 or 7 and had a captive audience. The ability to program to niche markets has destabilized the broadcast networks by creating a democracy of choice. You now have a whole nation of program directors with remote controls in their hands.
"With the proliferation of viewing choices, television started to resemble radio," he adds. "One station provides news; another, soft rock; a third is all-sports. These stations had to identify themselves. Television was never forced to do that until satellites came in and made 50, 60 channels available."
With the advent of the Internet and its subsequent impact, McCormick thinks he may have an advantage with a mostly female staff. "Business is moving more towards a supportive type of partnering environment. At the core of the Internet is a sharing of information. That opens up some great doors for women, because they have natural instincts on that. I find women to be far more supportive in meetings than men," he says. "I've seen situations where women will say, 'I can do this,' and another will say, 'I have someone who can help you on that.' Guys will say, 'You do your thing and I'll do mine. And let's see if you can do better.' [With women,] it's more communal than competitive."
While McCormick's job keeps him looking toward the future, his tastes in cigars hearken to the past. "I've got a stash of 35-year-old cigars that a friend gave to me that are as smooth as silk," says McCormick, a smoker since college. "You know you're smoking some history right there. A good aged cigar is absolutely fantastic. It becomes more mellow and less harsh. Those I reserve for when I want to give myself a treat. You literally watch history burn up before you. The oldest cigar I ever smoked was about 40 years old. I really feel blessed to have tasted it, because it was so smooth, so mellow."
His favorite setting for a smoke is after dinner with friends, sitting outside on the porch at Nick and Toni's restaurant on Long Island, accompanied by a strong Colombian coffee. "That to me is a good way to close down an evening," he says, between puffs of a Davidoff robusto. "If you savor it and ritualize it, it's like Zen, flowing in, flowing out."
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. Once, a Yankee Stadium guard refused to let him hold an unlit cigar. "He said, 'There's no smoking here,' " recalls McCormick. "I said, 'But it's unlit.' He said, 'There is no PROMOTING of smoking here.' It was like a 'Seinfeld' episode."
Fortunately, he hasn't had to convince his colleagues. "Some of them already smoke and I love it," says McCormick, who keeps a humidor in his New York City office. "It's great to smoke a cigar with a woman. Nothing is better than to give a woman who smokes cigars one of your best stash and have her appreciate it. There is a camaraderie among cigar smokers in that we have something we want to share. I never walk out of my house with one cigar, even if that's all I'll smoke."
Love At First Puff
"In college, I started having cigars after sex as an early indication of whether I could fall in love with that woman," says producer Tom Fontana. "If she said, 'Can I have a puff?' I'd immediately fall in love," he says with a laugh. "But a lot of them said, 'Get that smelly thing out of my room!' Don't forget, it was the '60s, and cigar smoking was not so acceptable among hippies. They were like, 'Isn't that a rich, fat, capitalist thing to do?' I was part of the hippie movement, but I also liked to maintain my own individuality.
"Then I got into television in the early '80s and started to make money, so I went from smoking El Stinkos to Cubans," he says with a grin. "So now it fits with a rich, fat-cat image. But I'm way too old to have to look at the rebellion side. I'm just trying to stay awake."
Fontana's mellow facade belies a mind that produces (with film producer-director Barry Levinson) some of TV's more strongly charged fare: NBC's police drama "Homicide" and HBO's gritty prison drama "Oz." In a cluttered, no-frills office at New York's Chelsea Piers, he still pens scripts longhand, sports an earring and maintains a cavalier air about everything--except creative responsibility.
"I think the trend in TV now is for mediocrity," he says. "I've been doing television for 17 years and in the last five, I've felt the corporate hand on my shoulder. Back in the '80s, it seemed the decision making was on a much more personal level and people were excited about making exciting programs. Today, the ultimate consideration is about the money, with people making programs just to fill a space, which is sad."
Fontana sees the less restrictive cable industry as the breeding ground for more innovative programming. "The freedom is extraordinary. It's amazing what they'll let you do," he says. "And I've tried to take that freedom very seriously, in that I'm going to use it to tell the stories as well as I can tell them. I also didn't want to fuck it up so the next producer would hear, 'Well, we trusted Fontana, why should we trust you?' "
His approach to cigars brings the same elements of respect and rebellion. A co-owner of the Manhattan cigar bar and restaurant Granville, Fontana prefers such smokes as Montecristos, Romeo y Julieta Churchills and the occasional Cohiba--as much for the taste as the contraband.
With apologies to Ernest Hemingway, Fontana does not find cigar smoking conducive to writing. "I get up at 5:30 every morning to write, so it's not really a good time to smoke a cigar," he says. "I see this as a relaxation thing. I smoke two a day--before and after dinner. I'm a Bourbon, Wild Turkey kind of guy, although it's probably not the best thing to drink with a cigar. I know some people who like to dunk the end of the cigar--the tip you smoke--into brandy, which adds a whole other flavor."
Certainly none as intriguing as Fontana's original use for cigars.
"My ex-wife was in town," he says. "She walked into what was formerly our apartment and said, 'Oh, you're smoking cigars in the house. I can smell them.' "
Did she kick him out of the house to smoke?
"No, she used to smoke in bed with me," he says with a laugh. "That's how I knew to marry her." So, does she still smoke? He pauses a moment to consider whether his marriage barometer worked in reverse, then says with a grin, "No, I don't think so."
Don't Tread on Me
Dick Wolf is a tough guy. If he wasn't making TV shows about cops and lawyers, he'd probably be one of them. Take salary squabbles, for example. Two summers ago, the six stars of "Friends" successfully banded together to renegotiate their salaries--big salaries. It gave other actors the same idea, like the two leads on the recently cancelled "New York Undercover," the drama Wolf co-created for Fox. The show couldn't carry on without them, they surmised. After all, they were the stars. So they boycotted the set.
See, Wolf is also the creator of the Emmy Award-winning "Law & Order," which has survived the airways for eight years without relying upon the original cast members. Wolf's counterpunch was formidable. "We're holding auditions for replacements," he told the press. "If the guys don't show up Monday morning, we've got a new script in place. And it starts with a double funeral." The boys returned to the set.
"The escalation of fees has gotten so out of control on a lot of these new shows," says the Los Angeles-based Wolf. "Stars are getting huge money for acting and producing. It's fee on top of fee, until the show is carrying a huge deficit."
In television, networks pay a license fee for the right to broadcast a show. But it only covers a portion of the show's cost. The majority is borne by the production studio, which recaps its deficit in syndication and/or foreign distribution. But to do that, the show has to be on for a number of years, which is getting tougher with the proliferation of channels.
"Ninety-five percent of new shows fail," adds Wolf. "The market share of the networks is getting smaller as the number of viewing choices goes up. DirecTV has 175 channels. As it is, it's getting harder to come up with programming that sticks. Huge salaries are increasing the risk factor."
Wolf is also aggravated by the increasing government intervention in program content, courtesy of the V-chip and ratings system. "It takes on the form of economic censorship when you have a mindless device that blocks anything with a specific rating," he says. "Advertisers stay away and the show gets canceled. Once you start down that road, you don't know how far it will go, because you don't know what the next round of elected officials will be like. If I told you 10 years ago that the government would have a chip like that implanted in every TV set in the country, you would have locked me up as a paranoid."
Wolf is exactly the kind of guy you'd expect to smoke cigars. Imposing, brusque, to the point. A hard worker, but someone who appreciates the finer things in life. Wolf began smoking some 30 years ago as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, thanks to a membership in a fraternity with a smoking room.
"The cigars I liked initially were the old Dunhill Montecruz made in the Canary Islands. In the '70s, some other brands started to come in--Fuente, Montecristo No. 2, Cohiba Robustos. I also like the Hemingway Short Story, 49 ring gauge. It's four inches long and a good 20-minute smoke." His favorite smoking place is in his car on the way to work. The journey usually lasts as long as it takes to smoke a Montecristo No. 2.
"Since I live in the land of political correctness, it's the only place I can smoke without getting dirty looks," Wolf says with a laugh. "I drive with the sunroof open. To and from work gives me two great uninterrupted smokes."
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