Paley Center looking to reinvent itself for digital age
The Paley Center for Media sits in the axis of the media universe in New York.
The museum is within walking distance of the headquarters of CBS, NBCUniversal, 21st Century Fox and Time Warner. There, television leaders hobnob during industry breakfasts and historians sift through the archives of 160,000 radio and television segments. Jimmy Fallon was a regular there watching old footage when he was preparing to take over NBC’s “The Tonight Show.”
But on a typical day, Paley Center’s gleaming branch in Beverly Hills is nearly empty.
Fewer visitors have stopped in since last summer when Warner Bros. packed up its popular exhibit that showcased props from shows, such as fictional mobster Tony Soprano’s bathrobe. The building these days features photographs from CBS’ hit reality show “Survivor” and L.A. real estate investor Steve Soboroff’s collection of 28 typewriters used by artists including John Lennon and Ernest Hemingway.
Paley’s shrinking profile in Los Angeles, staff cutbacks and uncertainty surrounding its peculiar land lease has prompted concerns that it might shut down West Coast operations. But the center is scrambling to broaden its scope and reinvigorate its Beverly Hills outpost amid massive shifts in the media landscape.
“This is an industry that is changing so quickly,” said Maureen Reidy, who became chief executive of the Paley Center last spring.
The rise of the Internet and the financial crisis forced the nonprofit museum to reexamine its mission. The proliferation of DVDs and online video sites like Hulu and YouTube have enabled people to watch old TV clips whenever they pleased and diminished the uniqueness of the center’s vast archives.
“People weren’t coming in and putting on headphones to watch old episodes of ‘I Love Lucy,’” Reidy said. “People are looking for a multimedia, interactive experience.”
When Reidy became chief executive, she was tasked with re-imagining the nonprofit museum and bolstering revenue to erase its annual operating deficit.
The organization takes in nearly $20 million a year in revenue, largely from donations and special events. According to its 2012 tax filing, the nonprofit posted a $7.5-million operating deficit. In 2013, the most recent year in which tax forms are available, Paley boosted its fundraising efforts but still reported a $4-million operating deficit. A Paley executive said Monday that when including the increased value of its investments, the organization “generated a surplus” in those years.
Paley’s assets, including its building in New York, were valued at $126 million in 2013, according to its IRS form.
CBS’ legendary founder, William S. Paley, created the organization in 1976 as the Museum of Broadcasting to preserve the history of radio and television. It built the New York center into a cultural destination and decided to push west in 1996.
Today, the Paley Center boasts a well-heeled board of governors that includes Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger, CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves, Warner Bros. Chairman Kevin Tsujihara, 21st Century Fox Co-Chief Operating Officer James Murdoch and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
But unlike in New York, television executives here are scattered throughout a sprawling region: Hollywood, West Los Angeles, Culver City, Studio City and Burbank. Driving to Beverly Hills can be an hour-plus trip. Evening cocktail parties were nixed; people didn’t want to encourage drinking and driving.
And within a few years, the Paley Center’s decision to build an expensive building on land that it did not own turned into a colossal headache.
The Paley Center commissioned Richard Meier, the Getty Center architect, to design a sleek $16-million structure on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills. The museum had a long-term lease on the property owned by a family trust and managed by Bank of America.
In an odd quirk, lease payments were tied to the price of gold until the land was sold to a development group for $47.25 million late last year. The Paley Center has a nine-year lease.
“We are not going anywhere,” Reidy said. “We simply have a new landlord.”
Television executives praise Paley’s programs in Los Angeles as top-notch. For example, this month more than 20,000 television fans flocked to PaleyFest, the annual television festival sponsored by the center. The profitable event featured sneak peaks of upcoming TV show episodes and discussions with actors and writers behind such hits as CBS’ “The Good Wife” and ABC’s “Scandal.”
Tickets for the festival at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood went for $30 to more than $100 a pop.
“The PaleyFest has been very successful, and in Los Angeles events that connect with the public have done well and made money,” said Gordon Crawford, a former board member. “They need to populate the whole year with public-facing events and that will work well for them going forward.”
Reidy acknowledged that the museum still is trying to figure out how best to involve Hollywood.
To some, Reidy did not seem a natural choice to lead the nonprofit because she lacked a television or corporate fundraising background. She began her career as a certified public accountant for PriceWaterhouse, then ran the Miss Universe Organization for Donald Trump and spent five years in former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in marketing and tourism.
But her energy has impressed board members.
“She has not only designed a new model for Paley but initiated actions that target new sources of revenue and a revitalization and greater involvement of the Los Angeles entertainment and media community,” said board member and public relations guru Dick Lippin, whose firm includes Paley as one of its clients.
Almost immediately after she took the top job at Paley, Reidy spearheaded a move to develop a multiyear business plan, and last year the group achieved a milestone by bringing in more money than it spent.
Reidy and the Paley staff stepped up fundraising efforts and introduced new programs and initiatives to broaden its scope. Now, Spanish-language media, technology, advertising and sports programming will get prominent billing. The group recruited new board members, including Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred.
Paley tried to reconnect in Los Angeles by sponsoring a huge gala last fall that celebrated television’s role advancing diversity, including gay rights. And this year, Reidy hopes to make family programming a bigger focus, with exhibits to make the museum a destination for parents and children.
“Our foundation is solid, but we want to take the Paley Center to the next level,” she said.
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