Downsizing NBC Plots An Unscripted Future

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, October 20, 2006

BEVERLY HILLS, Oct. 19 On the day NBC announced it would slash about 700 jobs and no longer develop scripted series for the 8 p.m. hour, the network's programming chief had to appear before a packed room of producers, agents and staffers at the TV industry's annual grill-the-programming-chiefs lunch.

"First and foremost, Jack and I will have the same amount of programming on our networks," Kevin Reilly joked when asked about NBC Universal's new slash-and-burn policy, which the network has dubbed NBCU 2.0.

Reilly was referring to Jack Abernethy, CEO of Fox Television Stations Inc., who was onstage with Reilly and his counterparts at the other nets. Abernethy represented "Fashion House" and "Desire," the steamy prime-time soaps of Fox parent News Corp. now airing under the cheeky name MyNetworkTV on many stations that got dumped in the UPN/WB merger -- including Washington's former UPN station, WDCA.

Reilly's self-effacing NBCU 2.0 crack played really well in the room, which had been nervously buzzing about the announcement while the programming chiefs were holed up in a VIP room upstairs at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Downstairs the consensus was "NBCU 2.0" stood for NBC's Ratings Next Year.

They were understandably cranky, having read comments by Reilly's boss, NBC Universal television group CEO Jeff Zucker, that NBC will focus on lower-cost programming at 8 p.m. because, as he told the Wall Street Journal, advertiser interest isn't high enough to justify spending on scripted shows. Zucker doesn't like Hollywood; the feeling is mutual.

But they do like Reilly, who was onstage along with ABC's Stephen McPherson, CBS's Nina Tassler, CW's Dawn Ostroff and Fox's Peter Liguori -- all looking relaxed as only TV industry execs whose bosses have not just announced they were going to whack 700 people and no longer develop scripted series for 8-9 p.m. to save money can.

Reilly didn't look quite as relaxed and, after opening with his joke that went over big, got that glassy look that executives always have when they are about to bore you as you've never been bored before with carefully rehearsed corporate-speak.

He talked of a company at a digital crossroads, about how nobody has the answers, how challenges give you the most clarity, how companies on the upswing perhaps put off hard decisions (take that, CBS and ABC), how today's announcement "drew a line" around many practices already in place at NBC and how NBCU 2.0 had galvanized resolve to make the hard decisions -- if not today, or tomorrow, certainly within the next couple of years.

And, in conclusion, he said, "What it means immediately, frankly, is not much to the naked eye."

Reilly noted NBC already runs the heck out of game show "Deal or No Deal" across the week, hinting that the new reality series "1 vs. 100" may become another 8 p.m. utility player.

Additionally, he assured the audience, it does not make sense for NBC to "go into the jaws" of existing reality hits on the other networks -- ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," CBS's "Survivor," etc. -- with reality product.

"So this is not an absolute," Reilly said.

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