Entertainment Industry

Category: NBC

Upfronts 2012: Fox isn't happy about Dish's ad-zapping Auto Hop

NEW YORK -- Add Fox Networks Group Chairman Peter Rice to the growing list of television executives upset about satellite broadcaster Dish Network's new Auto Hop commercial-skipping feature.

"It seems a strange thing to do," Rice said about Dish's new feature, which allows users to literally black out commercials from shows that are broadcast on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox and then watched at least one day after their original airing.

Peter RiceWhile consumers with digital video recorders can fast-forward through commercials of recorded shows, the Auto Hop takes it a step further. The screen goes black when a commercial break appears and a few seconds later, the program returns. The service can't be used on live programming, such as a sporting event, that has been recorded.

With more than 14 million subscribers, Dish Network Corp.'s new technology is of great concern to the networks and advertisers.

Rice, who was speaking with reporters on a conference call Monday to announce Fox's fall schedule, noted that broadcast networks such as Fox are the largest content providers to pay-TV distributors such as Dish, and wondered why Dish would risk alienating that relationship. As for whether the network will consider some sort of legal action to try to derail Dish's new commercial-zapping offering, Rice said Fox is "still evaluating it."

On Sunday, NBC Broadcasting Chairman Ted Harbert also expressed frustration over Dish's Auto Hop, calling it "an attack on our ecosystem."

The NBC executive took it a step further Monday during the network's presentation of its fall schedule to advertisers at Radio City Music Hall. After talking in great detail about the billions NBC and its parent company Comcast Corp. have spent on sports programming, such as the National Football League and the Olympics, as well as hundreds of millions on comedies and dramas, Harbert called the Auto Hop an "insult" to that investment.

"Just because technology gives you the ability to do something, does that mean you should?  Not always," Harbert said.

Dish's new technology, which was announced last week, is only offered for use on broadcast programming, not shows from cable networks. A Dish spokesman said there was no technological reason that Auto Hop wouldn't work on cable but that it was being offered for use only on broadcast shows because those are most popular with Dish customers.

This is not the first time such a technology has been launched. Several years ago, a service called Replay did virtually the same thing. The broadcast networks sued and won on copyright infringement grounds.

A Dish spokesman said the satellite broadcaster "believes that consumers deserve a choice when it comes to television viewing and Dish’s Auto Hop feature is all about choice. Viewers have been skipping commercials since the advent of the remote control; we are simply making it easier.”

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NBC Broadcasting head no fan of Dish's commercial-skipping device

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Peter Rice. Credit: Fox

NBC Broadcasting head no fan of Dish's commercial-skipping device

New York -- NBC Broadcasting Chairman Ted Harbert is not a fan of satellite broadcaster Dish Network's new commercial-skipping device, the Auto Hop, which automatically deletes commercials from recorded prime-time programming from the four big broadcast networks.

"I think this is an attack on our eco-system," Harbert said on NBC's conference call announcing the network's 2012-13 prime-time schedule. "I'm not for it."

NBC Broadcasting Chairman Ted HarbertHarbert declined to comment on whether NBC or its parent Comcast Corp. was preparing any sort of legal response to Dish Network Corp.'s new technology. He did say he would have an elaborate message to advertisers and Dish on Monday at Radio City Music Hall when the network presents its fall schedule to advertisers.

Introduced last Thursday, Dish's Auto Hop is a component of Dish's PrimeTime Anytime feature on its digital video recorder service, which is called the Hopper. The Anytime feature automatically records the prime-time programming of CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox and stores the content on a rolling basis for eight days.

Viewers who use the PrimeTime feature can use the Auto Hop to literally black out commercials, provided the programs are watched the day after their original airing. The way it works is that the customer pushes a button and then when a commercial break appears, the screen goes black for a few seconds and then the program returns. The Auto Hop can't be used on live programming such as a sporting event that has been recorded.

Dish, which has more than 14 million subscribers, is already starting to heavily market the device, even tweeting about it.

The broadcast networks have so far stayed mum about the Auto Hop but in the past have expressed great concern about any device that allows consumers to bypass commercials. While digital video recorders allow a viewer to fast-forward through spots, the commercial images still play on the screen, albeit faster. The Auto Hop gets rid of the advertisements altogether.

The Auto Hop is being offered by Dish for use only on broadcast programming, not for shows on cable networks, even though that is technically possible. A Dish spokesman said the reason it is limited to broadcast shows is because those are the shows most frequently recorded by consumers. Whether that decision to offer the device only for a handful of channels provides fodder for a lawsuit will no doubt be revealed in the weeks ahead.

Several years ago, the networks sued over a similar device called Replay TV and won on copyright infringement grounds.

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-- Joe Flint

Photo: NBC Broadcasting Chairman Ted Harbert. Credit: NBC

Could NBC's 'Smash' get a ticket to Broadway?

  Uma Thurman on 'Smash'

Could "Smash" be headed to Broadway? When NBC developed the prime-time TV musical drama about cutthroat competition on Broadway, the network buttoned up the rights for a Broadway version of the TV show.

The series about the making of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, which NBC recently renewed for a second season, is a long way from getting to the real Broadway. Still, the show has been a passion project for NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt for years, and it boasts a large cast of executive producers with elite pedigrees and credentials in the theater world.

Steven Spielberg brought the idea for a TV show about a Broadway musical to Greenblatt about three years ago, when Greenblatt was head of entertainment at premium cable channel Showtime. But Showtime's tight budget provided little canvas for Greenblatt to paint an ambitious slate of programming.

"Smash" languished until Greenblatt moved to NBC early last year, where the show got an immediate greenlight. Greenblatt and Spielberg, who has invested in other Broadway shows, recruited producers with musical credits, including Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, part of the producing team behind the film versions of the musicals "Chicago" and "Hairspray."

Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman were brought on board to compose the original songs that are performed on "Smash." The duo retains certain rights to that music -- and that ownership presumably would carry over to any Broadway version of the NBC series. (Shaiman and Wittman also wrote songs for Broadway productions of "Hairspray" and "Catch Me if You Can," in addition to the music for numerous feature films, and have won Grammys.)

By the end of the first season of "Smash," there will be at least 15 original songs written for the fictional musical around which much of the series' action revolves. In the TV show, the fake musical is called "Bombshell." 

But does that mean it's Broadway-bound?

"Since our creative team has been writing songs and snippets of 'Bombshell' scenes only to tell the stories of our characters in 'Smash,' there is no fully realized 'Bombshell,'" Greenblatt wrote Thursday in an email to The Times. 

"I'm not saying that it will never happen, but we are all focused at the moment on completing our [Season 1] finale episode and have already started talking about the macro ideas for Season 2," Greenblatt wrote, adding that next season will feature a second musical, as the fictional "Bombshell" heads to the fictional Broadway.

"So no one has thought twice about trying to find the time or energy to develop 'Bombshell' for the stage," Greenblatt wrote. "It takes several years to write and construct a big Broadway musical, and most of the hard work starts at the script stage before the songs are even conceived."

Greenblatt has long been interested in theater. Several years ago, Greenblatt persuaded his mentor Peter Chernin, former president of News Corp., to release the rights to the 1980 Fox movie, "9 to 5," starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.

From that, Greenblatt, while working at Showtime, produced the show, "9 to 5: The Musical," which opened in Los Angeles in the fall of 2008 and went on to have a five-month run on Broadway in 2009.  (Megan Hilty, who played the Dolly Parton role of Doralee Rhodes in "9 to 5: The Musical," plays one of the prospective Marilyn Monroes on "Smash.")

Now some wonder whether "Smash" could eventually pave the way for a return engagement by Greenblatt on the Great White Way.

Bob Greenblatt"I am working full time at NBC and it wouldn't make sense for me to be a producer," Greenblatt said -- but he added, "Maybe I could produce 'Bombshell' when I'm long gone from NBC, which would be about the time that [a Broadway project] would come to fruition."

NBC, controlled by cable giant Comcast Corp., has a more riding on "Smash" than a potential Broadway play. The ailing network banked heavily on the program to improve its anemic ratings and serve as a beacon for more sophisticated programming. NBC has spent nearly $70 million making and marketing the first season of "Smash."

The show has delivered only modest ratings. Six million viewers tuned in Monday night, although NBC executives have been encouraged that the audience grows by about 2 million people, who record the show and watch it after it airs on TV. 

NBC announced last month that it would bring "Smash" back for a second season. The network noted that "Smash" draws one of the most upscale audiences in network television, coming in behind another musically themed series, Fox's "Glee."

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe, which adds attention to efforts to bring her story to life. (DreamWorks Television and series creator playwright Theresa Rebeck also have an ownership interest in the television version of "Smash.")

And there could be competition if NBC decides to trundle "Smash" to Broadway. Last fall, producer Harvey Weinstein said he was interested in turning his company's Oscar-nominated feature film "My Week With Marilyn" into a Broadway musical featuring Katy Perry. 

It would not be the first time that NBCUniversal dabbled on Broadway. The company has an ownership interest in one of the most successful productions of all time, "Wicked." That musical is produced by former Universal Pictures production executive turned Broadway producer, Marc Platt.

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-- Meg James

Top photo: Uma Thurman (center) next week will join the cast of NBC's drama "Smash" for a five-episode story arc. Thurman is pictured with actors Yami Mufdi and Sean Dugan. Credit: Will Hart / NBC  

Bottom photo: NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt in 2009. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Ohlmeyer and Zucker take beating in Littlefield book

Warren Littlefield and Don Ohlmeyer

Former NBC executives Don Ohlmeyer and Jeff Zucker take a beating in a new book by their ex-colleague Warren Littlefield, who was entertainment president of the peacock network during its 1990s glory days of "Friends," "Seinfeld" and "ER."

In "Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV," Littlefield and other former NBC executives, actors and producers pile on Ohlmeyer and Zucker. Ohlmeyer, who was Littlefield's boss for many years, takes heat for his difficult personality while Zucker, who was at NBC News in the 1990s but later rose to the top of the network, gets knocked for what is viewed as a disdain for creative people and show business.

The book, coming out May 1, is co-written by Littlefield and author T.R. Pearson. Like "Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN," it is an oral history featuring quotes from many of the key executives who worked at NBC 20 years ago, including former NBC President Bob Wright, scheduling chief Preston Beckman (now at Fox), Jamie Tarses (now a producer) and David Nevins (now head of programming for Showtime).

The producers behind many of NBC's hits are also in the book, as are actors including Jerry Seinfeld and much of the cast of "Friends," "ER" and "Will & Grace."

While the general public will likely focus on how "Seinfeld" got made and what made the cast of "Friends" tick, industry insiders will be looking for dirt, and there is no shortage of that.

Ohlmeyer, who came to NBC in the early 1990s after a long and successful career as a sports producer, was credited with bringing stability and leadership to NBC Entertainment after Brandon Tartikoff had left the network. 

But he also had a strong personality, didn't suffer fools gladly and battled alcoholism, later going to the Betty Ford rehab center. He is described as a bully by Littlefield and former NBC executive Harold Brook, and Beckman and others talk about how they knew when Olhlmeyer had been hitting the sauce.

"You knew when Don was hungover," said Littlefield's longtime assistant Patty Mann. "He'd wear these blue satiny jogging outfits with loafers and no socks.... You could also tell Don's condition by the way he parked."

Beckman compared Ohlmeyer to an "abusive dad."

Littlefield, who chafed under Ohlmeyer in those days, said he tried to like him but couldn't.

"Don was first a drunk bully and then a sober bully, but always a bully ... he was an abusive impediment far too much of the time," Littlefield said.

Tarses simply said "we stopped having as much fun when Don came, he changed the whole tenor of the place."

Ohlmeyer's volatile personality gets a lot of attention, but he does get praise for being smart with good programming instincts. Brook called him "one of the smartest guys in broadcasting," and John Miller, who was heading marketing for the network then, said he was a "good leader."

Zucker, on the other hand, just gets slammed. Beckman said his job was to "build a schedule so even Jeff Zucker needs four years to destroy it."

Although Littlefield was out of NBC by the time Zucker had begun to rise to overseeing entertainment, lots of shots are taken at him by producers who had shows at the network in those days.

"Jeff Zucker is the worst thing that ever happened to network television," said Steve Levitan, the co-creator of ABC's hit "Modern Family" and creator of "Just Shoot Me," which ran on NBC from 1997 to 2003.

Littlefield takes a more academic approach to describing Zucker.

"The Zuckerization of the network in recent years has been marked by the belief that viewers exist to be manipulated rather than nourished.... This philosophy in practice resulted in Jay Leno at 10:00 five nights a week, and we all know how well that went," wrote Littlefield.

Ohlemyer and Zucker declined to comment on the book.

— Joe Flint

Photo: Don Ohlmeyer (left) and Warren Littlefield in their glory days. Credit: Los Angeles Times.

Magic Johnson to head Comcast cable channel Aspire

MagicMagic Johnson, the former Laker and basketball Hall of Famer, has long been on an aspirational journey. This summer he plans to bring his upbeat message to new audiences with the launch of a 24-hour cable television channel named Aspire, via Comcast Corp.

Comcast plans to announce Tuesday that it will make available Johnson's 24-hour network in late June in about 11 million of its subscribers' homes. The initiative begins to fulfill a promise the cable operator made last year when it was seeking the federal government's approval of its more than $14 billion merger with NBCUniversal. 

The Philadelphia-based cable giant agreed to launch 10 new channels by 2018, including eight owned by African Americans and Latinos, to diversify its channel line-up.

"I told Comcast that I wanted to be sure I got the first one," Johnson said with a laugh during an interview with the Times.  

Johnson, who left professional sports 20 years ago and has since built a business empire, said the channel would focus on positive, uplifting images of African Americans. The basic cable outlet, which will be based in Atlanta, will join other channels targeting black viewers, like BET and TV One, and will offer opportunities for blacks who have struggled to find work in mainstream Hollywood.

“This is big for myself, for the African American community and the African American creative community," Johnson said. "I wanted a vehicle to show positive images and to have stories written, produced and directed by African Americans for our community. Aspire—that’s how I’ve been leading my life.”

Read the full story in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times.

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Photo: Earvin "Magic" Johnson speaks during the press conference held by the Magic Johnson Foundation at the Staples Center. Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / U.S. Presswire

FCC can auction spectrum, but will broadcasters sell?

 CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves

When it comes to parting with their spectrum, many broadcasters have the same attitude Charlton Heston had when it came to his rifle: The government can pry it from their “cold dead hands.”


On Friday, Congress cleared the way for the Federal Communications Commission to auction off some of the airwaves that broadcasters use to transmit their programming to wireless companies.

The proceeds would go toward building a new national network for law enforcement and public safety workers and toward paying for an extension of payroll tax and unemployment benefits.

Now comes the hard part: actually getting the spectrum, which has been valued at $25 billion, back from broadcasters to sell.

Even though the potential cut for broadcasters from the sale is $1.75 billion, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of excitement about the idea.

“We have no intention of giving up spectrum,” said Alan Frank, president and chief executive of Post-Newsweek Stations, a broadcasting group that owns stations in several big cities, including Detroit, Houston and Miami.

David Smith, CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., which operates 74 stations around the country, said he “hasn't heard of any broadcaster who has said they have anything for sale.”

The big networks seem to share that view. Although none would comment publicly, executives at Fox and NBC indicated they had no desire to sell any of their airwaves. CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves has previously said his company wants to keep all its spectrum.

“It would hurt our business,” Moonves said when asked last year at the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention if he would consider parting with some of CBS' airwaves.

Some broadcasters of independent and small-market stations could be game. Bert Ellis, president of Titan Broadcasting, which owns KDOC-TV Channel 56 in Los Angeles, told the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology last June that his company might be willing to sell some of its spectrum.

In Los Angeles, there are several small independent stations that cater to ethnic groups including Asians and Latinos. The National Assn. of Broadcasters worries that if they sell, local communities would suffer.

“The stations likely to sell — if any — are the ones that offer truly niche programming serving a melting pot of immigrant populations,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the broadcasters group. “The notion that an ABC or CBS affiliate would voluntarily choose to go out of business to help solve an alleged spectrum crunch is ludicrous.”

Not everyone paints such a grim picture. The Wireless Assn. and the Consumer Electronics Assn. said this week that “only a very small percentage of the nation’s broadcast stations need participate in the auction in order to address the nation’s broadband spectrum shortage.”

Philip Weiser, dean of the University of Colorado Law School and a former telecommunications advisor for the Obama administration, said he expects smaller broadcasters to try to have their cake and eat it too by sharing spectrum.

For example, one TV station could sell its spectrum and then partner with another station and share airwaves. Although that would not appeal to a big broadcaster, smaller mom-and-pop TV stations might be more willing to embrace such an option.

“It is a huge opportunity for them,” said Weiser, adding that such a practice would allow for a more efficient use of spectrum and would give broadcasters who choose to sell a “hefty profit.”

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An offer TV stations can't refuse

-- Joe Flint

Image: CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves at the Producers Guild Awards. Credit: Associated Press

NBC's 'The Voice' is strong but 'Smash' not living up to hype

NBC's 'Smash' the musical

NBC has found a voice -- but hasn't yet nailed its dance steps.

The broadcast network used its Super Bowl platform to successfully launch "The Voice," a remake of a Dutch singing competition starring Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.

"The Voice" kicked off its second season immediately after the Feb. 5th game before moving to its regular Monday night time slot. This week, the show continued to belt out high notes attracting more than 16 million viewers -- approaching the audience of Fox's aspirational juggernaut "American Idol." 

"The Voice" was so strong that it muffled the ratings of CBS' Monday comedy block, which includes "Two and a Half Men." This month represented the first time in more than four years that NBC beat CBS in key ratings on a Monday night.

But NBC's highly anticipated drama "Smash" is proving less spectacular.

At the end of Comcast Corp.'s earnings call Wednesday, NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke conceded to his colleagues that while "The Voice" should remain strong, "Smash is more problematic." Burke apparently didn't realize that his microphone was still live.

The expensive, highly promoted program attracted 8 million viewers Monday night, a respectable turnout particularly for a network that has struggled this season to launch new shows. A pet project of NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt, the critically acclaimed series has produced some of the best ratings for NBC in the time period in nearly three years.

However, NBC made an enormous investment on "Smash" despite concerns that a show about the making of a Broadway musical, and the cut-throat competition of New York's theater world, might lack broad appeal among most Americans. 

The pilot cost more than $7 million and production of subsequent episodes runs about $4 million. The network has spent at least another $10 million to promote the series, which has an all-star producing team, including Steven Spielberg, Theresa Rebeck as well as Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, the team behind "Hairspray" and "Chicago."

Late last week, NBCUniversal marshaled its firepower to bolster "Smash," headlined by Katharine McPhee, Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston and Megan Hilty. 

A number of the company's cable networks, including USA, Bravo and even video game culture channel G4 and the bilingual channel mun2, replayed the pilot of "Smash" in an effort to drum up new viewers. 

The company's so-called cable road block exposed the program to an additional 1 million viewers. But, the ratings for the second episode of "Smash" on NBC Monday night dropped 26% in key audience demographics compared with its Feb. 6 premiere. 

As troubling for NBC and Burke, the show steadily lost viewers throughout its hourlong telecast Monday night.

Comcast Corp. Chief Financial Officer Michael Angelakis warned Wall Street analysts Wednesday that managing programming costs would be one of the biggest challenges that Comcast faces this year. That is particularly true for Burke, who is charged with deciding how best to allocate the company's considerable programming budget. 

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-- Meg James   

Photo: The cast of NBC's "Smash." Credit:  NBC

 

 

Comcast fourth-quarter profit jumps 26%; NBC and film lag

The Lorax Universal Pictures
Comcast Corp. beat analysts' estimates with a 26% increase in fourth-quarter profit, but two NBCUniversal units continued to struggle: the NBC broadcast network and Universal Pictures.

For the quarter ended Dec. 31, the Philadelphia cable television giant posted net income of $1.29 billion, or 47 cents a share, compared to $1.02 billion, or 36 cents per share, for the year-earlier period.  Revenue climbed 3% to $15 billion.

Once again, the company's core business of providing bundles of cable TV channels and high-speed Internet service bolstered its financial results. Comcast added 336,000 Internet customers during the quarter while losing 17,000 video subscribers, demonstrating that the cable company was doing a better job holding onto its customers than it did during the recession.

But NBCUniversal continued to be a mixed bag.

The New York media company, which Comcast co-owns with industrial giant General Electric Co., generated revenue of $5.7 billion -- an increase of less than 1% over the year-earlier period.  Operating cash flow declined 6.8% to $1.1 billion for the quarter. 

Cable television networks, including USA, Syfy, Bravo and MSNBC, increased revenue 5.3% to $2.2 billion.  Broadcast TV revenue declined 3.7% to $1.8 billion -- reflecting continued ratings problems at the NBC broadcast network. 

Filmed entertainment revenue dipped 1.8% to $1.3 billion, in part because of lower home entertainment sales. Theme parks revenue climbed 4% to $498 million.

Cable networks' operating cash flow increased 15.3% to $923 million, but NBC posted an $80-million loss. The broadcast unit produced $55 million in operating cash flow in the previous-year period. Operating cash flow at Universal Pictures dropped nearly 50% to $89 million.  

Comcast said its focus for the last year was integrating NBCUniversal operations, finding the right management team and stepping up investments in programming.

"As you look out over 2012 and 2013 we are going to start to, hopefully, see some of the seeds we planted bear fruit," NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke told analysts. "We've said the network is going to take us a number of years to turn around. We also think we can see some improvement in film; our film business has not been doing well but we have a very strong slate in 2012."

However, Michael Angelakis, Comcast's chief financial officer, warned analysts: "The real headwinds are programming costs."

One analyst suggested that Comcast's shiny new toy -- media company NBCUniversal and its peacock network -- could ultimately challenge the company's financials.

"Evolutionary biologists have cogently argued that the peacock's tail evolved, paradoxically, as a gigantic display of handicap," Bernstein Research senior analyst Craig Moffett wrote in a report.  "Only a very healthy specimen could survive carrying around such a burden."

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 -- Meg James

Photo:  Ashley, voiced by Taylor Swift, is a character in the upcoming Universal Pictures film: "Dr. Suess' The Lorax." Credit:  Universal Pictures

Golden Globes trial ends; decision now rests with judge

GoldenGlobes2012TheArtistWins

With the two sides hopelessly deadlocked, a federal judge now must determine who controls the lucrative television rights to the Golden Globes Awards show.

Before a packed courtroom in downtown Los Angeles, lawyers representing the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which owns the Golden Globes, and Dick Clark Productions, which has produced the annual extravaganza for nearly 30 years, wrapped up their three-week trial with closing arguments  Friday.

U.S. District Court Judge A. Howard Matz had urged the sides to try to settle the case before Friday's finale -- but the parties remained at loggerheads.

At issue is the validity of a 2010 agreement that Dick Clark Productions struck with NBC that would keep the Golden Globes on the network through 2018 -- a deal worth as much as $150 million.  

But soon after that pact was announced, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. cried foul. The group sued Dick Clark Productions, contending that the production firm lacked the authority to enter into a new TV contract without its consent. 

Dick Clark Productions, meanwhile, maintains that a pivotal section of a 1993 contract gave the firm latitude to renew its TV licensing agreement as long as NBC remained the television broadcast partner.  Dick Clark Productions was acquired in 2007 by Red Zone Capital Management Co., a private equity firm controlled by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

Matz must now interpret the 1993 agreement. If he sides with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the organization could shop the deal to other networks and launch a bidding war.  

His decision is not expected for several weeks.

"It's going to take some time before I can get back to this," Matz said immediately after declaring the end of the trial. Then he complimented the legal teams, saying: "This case has been handled very professionally and I am grateful for that." 

Continue reading »

Super Bowl ads: VW spot gives Bolt the dog his breakout role

One of the stars of this weekend's Super Bowl will be Bolt, a 3-year-old Saint Bernard-Australian shepherd mix, who appears in a commercial for Volkswagen's Beetle.

Bolt is no slouch, although he does initially appear in the 60-second spot as a chunky couch potato. Inspired by a zippy red VW Beetle, Bolt decides to get fit by putting himself through the paces: running up and down stairs, hitting the treadmill and swimming laps in the backyard of a home in the Chapman Woods section of Pasadena.

To achieve the desired weight-loss transformation, executives with Deutsch LA, the agency that created the commercial, outfitted the normally lean (but furry) Bolt with a fat suit to make him look heftier. The suit comes off after he “sheds” pounds.

VIDEO TIMELINE: Best Super Bowl commercials

The team shot the commercial in Pasadena in early January, a little later than the filming of most Super Bowl ads. 

"We had to teach the dog to act, so he would get comfortable in front of a camera -- and comfortable wearing the fat suit -- and so he would give us all the right expressions,” said Michael Sheldon, chief executive of Deutsch LA.  “All the prep work had to be perfect before we could shoot.”

Months were spent training Bolt, who was born in Japan and previously performed -- with his brother Lewis and sister Hina (pronounced Hee-nah) -- at an animal show at Universal
Studios in Osaka, Japan. The show closed early last year, and the dogs were moved to L.A.

The Volkswagen ad, called "The Dog Strikes Back," was not Bolt's first time in front of the camera. He was part of the ensemble cast of the upcoming movie "Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3," but it's probably safe to say that more people will see Bolt this weekend in the ad airing on NBC. 

Bolt and his siblings live in Santa Clarita with their primary trainer, Gary Mui, according to Jennifer Henderson, operations manager at Birds & Animals Unlimited, the company that owns the dogs.

Agents need not apply. Bolt already has shot a TV pilot, which is under consideration, Henderson said.  The proposed show is called "Scent of the Missing." If the pilot gets picked up, Bolt will be a regular, playing a pooch who follows his nose to find missing people.

For more about Los Angeles advertising agencies' Super Bowl creations, read our article in today's Los Angeles Times.

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-- Meg James

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