Saturday, April 22, 2006

"First of all, we were seeing the movie the same way and that helps, we weren't in conflict. We also had a wonderful screenplay, which we had confidence in. Secondly, I think it was pretty obvious to Russell that I was there to try and do everything I could do each and every day to provide him the opportunity to excel and to realize the potential of each scene. I'm not loud about it, but I'm pretty dogged." Ron Howard - on directing Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind

Now that David Lee Roth has done his last radio show for CBS it seems everyone in the trade has an opinion about what went wrong. Cacophonous comments abound. Some have said David Lee Roth, the performer, deserves the sum total or at least majority of blame. A talent sans radio credential, Roth's error appears to be the stuff of pure bravado - accepting a role he lacked the skills and experience to perform well. Others find CBS management culpable; management's complicity beginning with a dubious hiring decision, one possibly made worse by a failure to provide adequate supervision. A number of station folks will tell you everyone went off the reservation in these so-called global decisions. Most would seem to agree with the obvious...the seminal missteps, the acute flaws in this catastrophe, were business decisions...take your pick...either management's election not to reach a new deal with Howard Stern or Howard's decision to walk away no matter the deal compounded by what each did (and didn't do) after that decision was final. That moment of final decision was the ripe catalyst that set into motion the perfect storm, the complex circumstances without precedent.

It would all prove to be more than replacing an iconic talent, one that produced competitive ratings in key markets; the challenge would also involve the Herculean job of replacing significant revenues and operating incomes in a difficult, if not stagnant, marketplace. A complicated magic trick to be attempted for the first time ever and that attempt witnessed by anyone with an interest. It must have felt like the mission was to change a flat tire while continuing to drive at 55 in order to reach their destination on schedule, their progress broadcast live coast-to-coast with running commentary and analysis. There was an urgent need to be right. The early returns are just that early returns. One talent out in a marathon never run before and miles to go before they sleep. No matter your opinion this is one for the history books; it also could merit a case study at the Harvard Business School, stay tuned.

My sense is this series of events stand as a cautionary tale, a case study writ large. Tempting, as it is, to reduce this episode to a discussion of the personalties involved (and their respective apparently censurable acts) let us choose instead to examine the issues.

Management's direction of Howard, actions of the parties before, during and subsequent to Howard's release and the controversy surrounding his final days are the subjects of litigation. It seems wise to await the insight that discovery, finding of fact and judgment may bring to light before offering any further commentary on this, the prequel to the Roth drama.

Ron Howard's comments above in answer to the question "Russell Crowe doesn't suffer fools gladly on film sets. How did you and he get along?" seems to fit, in part, here. CBS hired the former front man of a rock band, a person, it would seem safe to say, who would not likely suffer fools. But my point is not to compare Roth with Crowe here, rather to make plain the powerful forces inherent in conflict, mutual confidence and in the role of a director in the creative process. The responsibility for success, in my opinion, rested equally on talent and director. Producing effective results requires the absence of conflict that Ron Howard speaks about. The early reports seem to suggest conflict was rife in the Roth situation.

As the trade watched, the epic tragedy played out as if it were a slow motion car crash viewed one grainy freeze frame at a time. The soundtrack came directly from the attendant brawl, the industry wide parlor game of handicapping the high stake events. Never in recent times have so many second-guessed the minutia of a radio show's end, the hiring of replacement shows and the debuts, first days of the new shows. The derby of the decade, it was, replete with robust chatter about the retiring favorite, the new jockeys, the horses, the trainers and the owners. Every player had a good seat except those with something to lose, the principals putting careers, reputations and assets at risk in the harsh side games of unintended consequence. The noise and fervor in those first rounds of spirited no-ante wager have abated. The first races in the winter championship meet over, the first-time jockey in the multitrack east coast race cashiered before official results are posted. Now comes industry editorial, the somewhat tamer and a tat more rational discussion of detritus and the collateral damage. Welcome to the second guess on the second guess. The upcoming release of winter book numbers, the CBS Q1 call, together with comments (and spin) from the involved parties and a new team hitting the air will no doubt provide the accelerants needed to refresh the flaming. The fates and fortunes of the other replacements, a rich store of argument and second-guessing, held in reserve for now. Dogs bark, but the caravan rolls on goes the old Balkan proverb.

Please allow me to suggest some thoughts on the bigger business issues here. In the macro, the David Lee Roth adventure appears to offer lessons learned in each of the following disciplines...

  • Succession planning (seeking stars in advance of needs; the interval between first notice of need and announcement of new hire)
  • Creative process I (concept development, innovation, expectations, moving from rule taker to rule breaker and rule maker)
  • Casting (against role and concept)
  • Creative process II (leadership, managing the gap, standards, collaboration, staging, direction, editing, refinement of the solution set)
  • Marketing (to listeners, advertisers, staff and other potential stars in waiting)
  • Decisions to terminate (incl the Dwight Case rule of "when, how much and why")
  • Recovery (renewal, growth, resilience and preservation)

My thoughts on each of these topics will be available in posts beginning after next week's NAB. Please check back at the end of next week. Until then I welcome your comments on the outline.

Overheard in a top five market production studio - new seller, copy in hand speaking to creative director..."can I just wait for it, it's only a 30 and that should only take what...30 to produce right?" (that is correct miss, thanks for playing, now can we get this young lady into some kind of RAB emergency clinic - George Hyde are you getting this?)