NBC Redefines the Prime-Time Paradigm — Again

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, December 30, 2008

This is the third of a series looking at the Four Actual Broadcast Networks, leading up to Winter TV Press Tour 2009. Today, NBC: programming for the margins.

Back in April, NBC rushed to beat the other broadcast networks in unveiling this season's prime-time lineup -- a slate of new escapist series that NBC suits promised would allow people to "tune in and then mentally tune out," including a resuscitated "Knight Rider" and the super-spy-as-soccer-dad drama "My Own Worst Enemy."

NBC nearly got it right. Viewers did tune out.

That left NBC in a death match with Fox for the fewest viewers this season. Except that Fox has "American Idol" to look forward to, starting Jan. 13 and running through the end of the TV season. NBC has a supersize, two-hour version of "Celebrity Apprentice."

Once king of the hill, NBC is averaging less than 8 million prime-time viewers this season, trailing front-runner CBS by about 4 million, though only by about a half-million among the 18-to-49-year-old viewers NBC sells to advertisers. Fairly recently, NBC was a strong No. 1 in the demographic, though that was back in the days when it offered such shows as "Friends" and "Seinfeld." These days, NBC programs for the margins, with shows like aspirational fat-farm competition "Biggest Loser," and the clunky, internationally produced "Crusoe."

In just a few short years, NBC, once the best brand in broadcast TV, has become virtually irrelevant. This season has been a particularly lousy one for the network, leading even former journalist-disciples of the network to pen pieces about its "sad" descent and its "lack of quality inventory."

NBC, meanwhile, has rolled up its sleeves and started doing what it does best. No, silly, not developing the high-quality, must-see TV programs that once made it the crown jewel of broadcast television -- that's so 1990.

What NBC does best these days is turn its failures into The New Broadcast TV Paradigm.

Back in the fall of 2006, NBC -- which by then couldn't get arrested in the first hour of prime time -- announced it would from there on out fill that first hour with cheaper, unscripted shows each weeknight and save scripted series for 9-11 p.m. NBC's new plan -- it even had a name: TV 2.0 -- was the new paradigm for the industry, the network said, in the face of ever-increasing incursions from digital media. (By April of '08, when NBC unveiled its new prime-time plans for this season, TV 2.0 was out and the 8 o'clock Family Hour was back with scripted series like "Chuck," "Knight Rider," "My Name Is Earl" and "Crusoe.")

In April, when NBC unveiled its fall lineup, it also announced a year-round programming strategy, because programming year-round, instead of the traditional September-to-May official TV season, was The New Paradigm.

Eight months later, NBC announced a lineup for the first quarter of '09 that seems to suggest the network has actually run out of shows. Sundays, for instance, will be filled with the newsmagazine "Dateline," which is being pumped up to two-hour broadcasts, followed by that supersize "Celebrity Apprentice." Yes, that's right, two hours of Ann Curry followed by two hours of Donald Trump.

This month, after its fall slate of new series largely flamed out, NBC announced it would no longer air scripted series -- or reality series for that matter -- at 10 p.m. on weekdays. It would instead "strip" a Jay Leno-hosted show Monday through Friday, which would look remarkably like the Leno-hosted "Tonight Show."

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