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At NBC, There Is No Script For Success

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."

The new NBCUniversal2.0 plan is The New, New Paradigm, NBC said, because broadcast networks have to cut back on the hours of prime time they program in response to viewers being pulled away by things like the Internet and recorded shows on DVRs.

"Can we continue to broadcast 22 hours of prime time? Three of our competitors don't," NBC Chief Jeff Zucker told the annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in Manhattan, hours before the Leno announcement. Yes, Zucker referred to MyNetworkTV as a "competitor."

"Can we continue to broadcast seven days a week? One of our competitors doesn't, " he added for good measure -- a nod to struggling-to-survive CW, whose execs were, I'm sure, flattered.

Leno's show, while sure to average much smaller numbers than scripted programming in the 10 p.m. hour, will cost a fraction of what NBC was shelling out to produce five weekly drama series. Leno's show will also produce more original episodes than is typical for a drama series. But Leno's show lacks the afterlife of a scripted hit -- no syndication, no international market, no full-series DVDs.

Shortly after the announcement, Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of NBC-parent General Electric, cited the Jay Leno "strip" as an example of how all GE divisions are finding low-cost ways to boost margins; he called it a "margin enhancer." CBS called it "a godsend," given that it does well at 10 p.m. with procedural crime dramas and now has less competition; ABC must also be pleased, though perhaps still a bit miffed that it did not manage to snag Leno for its late-night schedule.

Ironically, NBC's act of desperation will frame the conversation for Winter TV Press Tour 2009. Bet the farm that each network's programming chief will be asked, during their Q&A session, what they think of NBC's Leno programming move and what they are doing to similarly slash their programming costs. It's The New Paradigm.

Tomorrow: ABC, the do-over network.

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