The Men Behind the Screens

These TV Executives Show that Not All Cigar-Smoking media Moguls Are in Film
| By Susan Karlin | From 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.

Ladies' Man
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.

Big mistake.

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."

Miami Vice
It started in Miami's Little Havana. In a jam-packed club filled with Cuban exiles, CBS News executive vice president Jonathan Klein and his wife, Jennifer Snell, an investigative reporter for Miami's WPLG-TV, began their love affair with cigars.

"We took to it very quickly. We'd go there every Friday. It was a release at the end of the week and fit with the conviviality and the brotherhood," says Klein, who oversees such shows as "60 Minutes," "48 Hours" and "Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel" from his Manhattan office.

"My wife and I smoke the same brand--Cohiba Lanceros," he adds. "Probably in Little Havana you can't smoke Cubans, so down there we'd smoke cigars called La Gloria [Cubanas], which kind of get passed around. I equate it with escape, plus I look good with a cigar. I'm a short guy. My wife looks like a complete knockout with a cigar. I almost feel fluent in Spanish with a cigar in my hand. It makes my merengue dancing even better."

Such cigar-enhanced bursts of escape balance the pressure from mounting competition among news organizations and prime-time newsmagazine shows.

"It's a fierce battleground," says Klein. "More people are watching what we do than ever before. There was a feeling among some West Coast programmers a few years ago that the newsmagazines' time had passed. But we're seeing quite the opposite. It's an evergreen format that's used anytime on the schedule and is a cost-effective counter-programming or ratings draw. It's a busier time than ever as information has become more regularly available to people. The burden is increasing to be first off the dime with the best information."

As competition intensifies, the pressure to adopt a tabloid format increases. "News executives and producers have to make a choice--to succumb to the lure or stake out a path that is truer to their own particular tastes," he says. "At CBS, we're trying to stand out from the rest in the tradition of Charles Kuralt and Mike Wallace. It's tougher and tougher to live up to that.

"The onus is on the network news organizations to provide context and analysis," he adds. "As information rises, comprehension falls, because you're constantly interpreting and digesting data. There's more raw data available, so it's more important that people in the audience

can trust and respect that we are helping viewers understand that information."

Klein isn't the only one at CBS News with a taste for cigars. He occasionally shares a smoke with Dan Rather and Bryant Gumbel, to whom he gave a Cohiba humidor to celebrate the launch of "Public Eye."

"Michael Rubin, the [former] executive producer of 'Public Eye,' usually smokes in the late afternoon when the sun is setting," says Klein. "Just smelling his office is enough. It's a nice club to be in. Wine drinkers have this, too. They appreciate a good bottle between friends. This business is driven by friendships, and it's nice to be able to share something like that."

Stogie Shtick
Dan Staley, Rob Long and Tom Anderson are the closest thing to a vaudeville comedy act this side of the Friars Club and a one-company ode to one-liners and cigars. The corporate logo for their Los Angeles-based Staley/Long Productions is two cigars in an ashtray, and an interview with them is an aural amphetamine.

Producers of CBS's "George & Leo" with Paramount Television, the three recall the countless times they've been reprimanded by Paramount security for complaints about their smoking, proudly showing off their cigar box totem pole rising to the ceiling in a corner of their office. "Our cigar logo is basically turning an annoying habit into a trademark," Anderson says.

"Our neighbors have called the Paramount security on us a few times," Long jumps in. "He comes in and says, 'There's been a report of cigar smoke.' We say, 'We're shocked.' "

"He ignores it, because he doesn't want to do the paperwork," says Anderson.

"We used to have another office on the lot and we'd smoke there in the afternoons," says Long. "When we'd have casting sessions, the casting women would come in and complain about the smoke, so that was all the more reason to turn it into a thing. You can't ask us not to smoke if it's our logo. The logo sequence actually has a cough in it, but you can't hear it, because the network music comes over it." (The cough was added to placate an irate letter from the American Lung Association.)

"For our first program, 'Pig Sty,' on UPN, we worked with a guy who hated our cigar smoking," says Staley. "When we lit up, he would sit there and cough ostentatiously. So that's his cough."

"In his defense, he has rather serious asthma," says Long.

Staley takes offense. "So do I."

The trio developed a taste for expensive smokes while working as writers and producers on NBC's "Cheers," which lavished its Emmy Award parties and final episode with Cuban cigars.

"The show's creators, Glen and Les Charles, smoked Romeo y Julieta Churchills," says Long. "They asked us if we minded cigar smoke. We said, 'No. In fact, we like cigars.' They'd say, 'Oh,' and keep smoking. They never offered us any."

The three also developed a taste for good comedy, a more difficult achievement in today's sitcom market. "There are 59 half-hour shows on the air," says Long. "You can't have that many shows and have them all be good. I think it's more competitive to get a show on the air and keep it. 'Cheers' was number 74 for the first year. The network stuck with it, it built slowly and it took off. 'Seinfeld' was a fluke. NBC gave it the lowest episode order and tried to bury it."

"The stakes are higher now," adds Staley. "Networks don't have that kind of time."

"I also think the writing staffs on some of these shows are too large," says Anderson. "I don't know what all those people do. It's easy to find a handful of quality writers. It's not easy to find a big staff of quality writers."

"George & Leo" came about in a manner that's rare today in television comedy. The script was written first, which CBS then used to draw Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch to the cast. Contrast that to most shows, which are essentially deal memos. The networks make separate agreements with talent and writers, then pit them together, often with little regard to complementary creative sensibilities.

"Most shows are deals in place before the creative part of the show is even talked about and that's why they suffer," says Staley. "Our philosophy is to do a show that's good and hope it will fit into someone's schedule."

Or, more importantly, their smoking schedule. Although favorites include Dunhills, Cohibas and Hamiltons, "anything that's in Rob's humidor is the cigar of the day," says Anderson.

"It's really more the size. I'm a size queen," says Long. "Two hours before a run-through you can smoke a Churchill. Forty-five minutes before, you can smoke a robusto."

"The point is to finish your cigar before you go to a run-through," adds Staley.

"Otherwise the run-through has to wait," says Long.

Despite their preoccupation with smoking, the guys draw the line at nuance fanatics who memorize things like ring gauges and Cigar Aficionado rankings. "I love the magazine," says Long, "but I've never in my 15 years of smoking detected a toasty flavor in a cigar."

Carrying the Torch
If anyone was born to smoke cigars, it's Ken Solomon. His grandfather, Charlie Berns, founded New York's famed "21" Club. The nightspot carried the best cigars and liquor, and drew such celebrity royalty as Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Howard Hughes and Ernest Hemingway.

"It's hard to name a star that didn't call '21' their second home," says Solomon, who works in Los Angeles. "My grandparents threw the wedding party for George Burns and Gracie Allen. I grew up with my grandfather and his friends smoking cigars and have these three humidors that he left me. They're among my most prized possessions.

"Growing up in that environment, I had a true appreciation at an early age for the finer things in life," he adds. "I developed a taste for caviar, fine wine and Champagne. And cigars were part of that. I had puffs when I was a kid, but I didn't ramp up until my late 20s."

Today, Solomon is president of Studios, USA Television, which produces NBC's "Law & Order" and ABC's "Something So Right."

"The good news is that there are more options than ever for selling shows," says Solomon. "The bad news is that the economics of a fractionalized TV universe dictates lower license fees for everything but the most successful series. Compound that by escalating costs, not just in production, but also for writers, producers and stars," he says. "It's exponential, especially in the last few years. The problem is, the economics of TV production and distribution don't really support the business in an ongoing basis unless you have a major hit show to make up for all of the deficit."

Nowadays, production studios lose money on shows until they are sold into syndication. "It used to be that if we sold a show, we made money up front, and if it was really successful, we enjoyed the syndication rewards. We're now in a business where the question we ask every time we endeavor to make a new TV series is, 'How much are we willing to lose on each episode, be it half-hour comedy or hour drama, until we hit the fourth or fifth season?' Those deficits are tremendous and add up to tens of millions of dollars--and that's with a successful show!"

Happily, money's no object when it comes to cigars.

"I like Romeo y Julieta No. 2s, which you can smoke anytime," he says. "But at the end of the day, it gives opportunity to pause and reflect and truly relax. When I get home or after a business dinner, it's a lot of fun to sit outside, in the quiet of the evening, and smoke a cigar. My wife, Lissa, often comes out and joins me in a smoke. Or when we go out with our friends. There's nothing sexier than a woman with a cigar."

And there's nothing quite as decadent as a lost weekend with your buddies in Havana to sample the cigars there. A couple of years ago, Solomon did just that with a group that included John Langley and Malcomb Barbour, creators of Fox's "Cops," and Greg Meidel, then the chairman of Twentieth Television and now the chairman and chief executive officer of Studios, USA Television.

"We stayed at the Hotel Nacional and literally smoked cigars with our eggs at breakfast right through our post-dinner," recalls Solomon. "We didn't sleep too much. The place is alive 24 hours a day. We went to Hemingway's favorite haunts, La Flora Dita and La Bogadita del Medio, and most of the cigar factories, including the Partagas factory where we watched them hand-rolling cigars. They say there's nothing like smoking a Cuban cigar in Havana and they're right."

Crime Does Pay
Say you've just broken the law. Now, suppose there's a camera crew recording your arrest. Then, a producer comes up to you with a release form asking your permission to broadcast all that on a national program.

And you sign it.

"I think it's the Warhol Syndrome--everyone wants his moment of fame," shrugs producer John Langley. "But it's the media age; it's not that big a deal anymore."

Luckily for the Santa Monica, California-based Langley, most people disagree, keeping "Cops"--the Fox show he created and produces--on the air for a decade. The unscripted, documentary-style program featuring footage of real cops on the job helped pioneer cinema verité on television and led to the explosion of reality shows in the early 1990s.

"We're like the Energizer Bunny--we don't make a lot of noise and we keep on going," says Langley, whose show has garnered four Emmy nominations. "Although, we've been ripped off so many times, I feel like Velcro. But that's the nature of the beast. You cannot copyright reality." But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, such praise he can do without.

"I'm proud today that I directly turned down invitations to do 'Cops' in another form," he says. "Why would I want to copy myself? TV, in general, is always marching to the same drummer and it's always a funeral march. There are always shows that will stand apart--like 'ER' and 'NYPD Blue'--but, for the most part, TV fails to learn the same lesson over and over again. It copies itself endlessly to the point of stupidity. 'The X-Files' succeeds, so unfortunately, now there will be 50 'X-Files' imitations."

Although cable is now the breeding ground for innovative television, Langley expects the Internet to eventually assume that mantle. "The Internet is the next form of television," he says. "At this point, it's a research and e-mail tool, but its real impact will be interactivity as television. It will offer thousands of channels and phenomenal programming specificity."

A self-proclaimed outsider, Langley has also flirted with maverick ideas. The former literature instructor got into television in the early 1980s with a documentary called "Cocaine Blues," about the cocaine phenomenon in America, and similarly themed prime-time specials hosted by Geraldo Rivera. It was the pioneering days of reality TV and was considered breakthrough television at the time. Networks loved it, because it was cheap; Langley loved it, because it kept him employed.

"Hiring myself was the only way I could get a job," he says with a laugh. "I could never be corporate. Better to be the trailblazer than a trail follower."

But sometimes, it's not so bad to jump on a bandwagon--especially when it comes to a good smoke. "I blame [USA Television's] Greg Meidel for getting me into cigars," says Langley. He knowns Meidel from his days at Twentieth Television, which syndicates "Cops."

"We were at a restaurant in L.A. called Eclipse and had a cigar afterward with Cognac," recalls Langley. "It was an Avo. It was a really enjoyable experience and I've been hooked ever since. Now, I smoke them after every lunch and dinner. It's relaxing. It's like sex; it takes away that nervous edge." A fact not lost on Langley's wife, who he says encourages his hobby for its pacifying effects.

"After lunch, I prefer a Montecristo No. 1 or 3; after dinner, it's Romeo y Julieta Churchills," he says. "They're Cubans and totally illegal. But fuck 'em--let 'em arrest me. I'll have a crew there filming."

Los Angeles-based Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist who has written for the London, Los Angeles and New York Times, Playboy, Newsweek, TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly.