CULVER CITY, Calif. — In October 2001, an exasperated Howard Stringer, the chief executive of Sony, ordered a substantial downsizing at the company's studio here.
Moviemaking would continue apace, but the production of new television shows — buffeted by soaring costs and industry consolidation — would nearly cease.
"There just had to be a better way," recalled Mr. Stringer in an interview by phone. "The trail of destruction I found really depressing."
A decade later, Mr. Stringer's mood has lightened considerably. Sony's television business — rebuilt brick by brick, or at least time slot by time slot — is now driving profitability at the broader studio.
Part of the reason is weakness on the movie side of Sony Pictures Entertainment; high marketing costs and a shortage of franchise films have severely dented its performance. But the small-screen side is also surging because of an improved hit-to-miss ratio, a leaner structure and overseas channel growth.
"Quietly and inexorably, Steve has expertly evolved that business," Mr. Stringer said of Steve Mosko, Sony's television chief.
Even so, Mr. Mosko still cannot boast of a completed turnaround. The Sony stable now includes money minters like "The Dr. Oz Show" and critical darlings like "Breaking Bad," but the studio has struggled to score a home run in prime time on a major broadcast network — still the industry's sweet spot. The best Mr. Mosko has been able to muster are doubles like the Joel McHale comedy "Community."
This fall, Mr. Mosko is hoping to hit one out of the park with "Pan Am," a stylish period drama about spying stewardesses that arrives on Sept. 25 on ABC.
The stakes are considerable for Sony, which spent an estimated $10 million to make the "Pan Am" pilot, a staggering sum by industry standards. A flop would underscore why Mr. Stringer got out of this risky game a decade ago and call into question the studio's current direction. Sony's other new shows for the fall are less ambitious, but also costly. They include a remake of "Charlie's Angels" for ABC and "Unforgettable," a co-production with CBS that is centered on a detective with a memory affliction.
If this pressure is weighing on Mr. Mosko, whose contract expires next year, he is not showing it. When asked about the price tag for "Pan Am" in an interview, he coolly adjusted a Buddhist-style bracelet adorning his left wrist and said, "We're not going to spend like drunken fools, but it needs to look a certain way for ABC to be happy and advertisers to be happy and deliver great results for Sony."
Sony's revival comes as entertainment companies across the board lean more heavily on television to cope with an atrophying film business. Movie executives have been laying off employees and cutting back on production as a result of imploding DVD sales, piracy and weakening sales of old films to cable networks.
Meanwhile, the television part of the studio trade has strengthened. Netflix has emerged as a new buyer. Cable outlets like ABC Family and Starz continue to ramp up on original programming. Foreign channels are booming. Even advertising sales, hammered during the recession, have come roaring back.
Sony discloses financial results only on a combined movie-television basis, so it is unclear how much money Mr. Mosko's group generates. But analysts say it is considerable. Of the $466 million in operating income that Sony Pictures Entertainment reported for its last fiscal year, which ended March 31, television contributed well over 50 percent.
Michael Lynton, chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, noted that Mr. Mosko's unit had thrived despite its small size — it has 27 shows in production compared with Warner Brothers' 54 — and despite being the only studio left that does not have a broadcast network or major North American cable channel as a corporate sibling.
As for Sony's hopes of infiltrating prime time on ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox, Mr. Lynton urges patience. There are "Pan Am," "Charlie's Angels" and "Unforgettable." And Sony's domestic programming presidents, Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, in recent weeks have sold more than two dozen scripts for potential shows to the Big Four.
"While we haven't yet had a breakout hit, some strong performers are finally hitting syndication and more will come," Mr. Lynton said. "I think it's a terrific, terrific start." ("Rules of Engagement" will start its syndication run in a few weeks.)
Mr. Mosko, known for his Incredible Hulk physique, is a true show business character. He comes accessorized with an endless rotation of funky reading glasses, holds court at the celebrity-clogged Sherwood Country Club (where the initiation fee is $160,000) and comes ready for a bare-knuckled fight over renewals of his shows — like the one he recently won with Fox over a Christian Slater comedy called "Breaking In."
Early in his career, while selling ads for a TV station in his native Baltimore, Mr. Mosko once closed a deal by plying a client with flaming shots of Sambuca and then literally arm-wrestling him for the business.
"Whatever works," he said.
Mr. Mosko, 55, brought that verve to resuscitating Sony's television operation starting in 2001. He laid off about 35 percent of the work force, merged departments like business affairs and slashed expensive development deals with producers. Virtually all that remained after he finished was a handful of profitable, but aging shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Young and the Restless," and still-lucrative distribution rights to sitcoms like "Seinfeld."
Then he set about persuading writers, producers and agents to take a smaller Sony seriously.
"Everyone questioned and doubted," he said. "We had to roll up our sleeves and meet endlessly with people and repeat our strategy over and over."
The centerpiece of that plan involved heading away from the pack and the expensive prime-time business. Noticing the shift by cable networks to original series, Mr. Mosko and his team concentrated firepower there. Successes like "The Shield" and "Rescue Me" followed.
Another turning point came in 2008, when Harpo, the production company based in Chicago owned by Oprah Winfrey, needed a distributor and co-producer for "The Dr. Oz Show." Harpo didn't even want to meet with Sony, instead preferring a bigger studio.
But Mr. Mosko flew to Chicago anyway and made an aggressive sales pitch. On a follow-up visit, he bumped into Ms. Winfrey in a hallway. "She asked me what we were doing back there, and I told her we weren't leaving until we had her business," Mr. Mosko recalled. The hard sell worked.
Around the same time, Mr. Lynton and Amy Pascal, the co-chairwoman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, moved to increase the studio's global focus and create more cooperation between departments. In 2009, for instance, they folded Sony's foreign TV business into Mr. Mosko's portfolio to improve, among other things, how shows were exported. The international side includes localized production in places like Russia and 120 channels; Sony's channels business is particularly strong on its home turf of Asia.
Indeed, those international networks, particularly several in India, where Mr. Lynton recently helped secure a lucrative contract to televise cricket matches, now account for a significant part of the television division's growth.
"You can't look at this business in the same unsophisticated way you did a decade ago," said Andy Kaplan, president of Sony's channels operation. "Well, I guess you can — a lot of people still do. But we certainly don't."
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