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NBC, When Your Speidi Senses Tingle, Ignore Them

By Lisa de Moraes
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

NBC Universal studio took another giant step toward turning its once-great broadcast network NBC into a competitive cable network when it allowed MTV's "The Hills" stars Spencer and Heidi Pratt to hijack hours and hours of its prime-time schedule on "I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!" Meanwhile, NBC's basic cable outfit USA continued to pursue its innovative programming strategy -- emulating a broadcast network.

Speidi is the self-proclaimed super-celebrity star of MTV's three-year-old reality series "The Hills," which, in its fifth season, averaged a whopping 2.45 million viewers -- a lousy number for NBC even on Saturdays. But the concentration of 12-to-34-year-olds among those 2.45 million viewers is the stuff of NBC yes-men's dreams.

NBC sells young viewers to advertisers these days -- not overall audience. NBC also programs for margins these days and reality series are generally much cheaper to produce than scripted dramas. Particularly reality series shot in Costa Rica that are about eating worms and hanging from poles and that star C- and D-listers like Stephen Baldwin, Janice Dickinson -- and Speidi.

So NBC last week turned over five hours during the course of four nights to Speidi-world with the idea that on Thursday, Speidi would funnel viewers into the unveiling of NBC's latest scripted drama, a knockoff of "The Mentalist" called "The Listener."

At the same time, over at USA, they've been busy developing dramas that will appeal to a wide swath of the American public. A so-called "broad" audience. The kind of show you used to see on broadcast networks. Dramas such as "Royal Pains," about a cute young doctor, played by former NBC prime-time star Mark Feuerstein, who loses it all after making a lousy call in the ER and has to become a concierge doctor in the Hamptons. (Paolo Costanzo, the guy who plays the doctor's brother, is also a former NBC player -- remember him from "Joey"?) And "Burn Notice," another drama series of the sort you used to see on broadcast networks. It's about a former spy who got sacked and is trying to find out why while, in his spare time, helping out ordinary people in Miami with their problems and putting up with his whiny mother, played by Sharon Gless -- remember her from CBS's "Cagney & Lacey"?

"Royal Pains" did not have Spencer-and-Heidi in a reality series for its lead-in. It had "Burn Notice" for its lead-in.

NBC's Speidi delivered 5.24 million viewers Thursday night.

NBC's "The Listener" logged 5.3 million viewers after Speidicast.

USA's "Burn Notice" clocked 6 million viewers Thursday night.

USA's "Royal Pains" logged 5.6 million viewers after "Burn Notice."

USA wins.

* * *

After sitting back and giving Conan O'Brien his NBC "Tonight Show" debut week, David Letterman's camp cleverly booked "Late Show" ratings magnet Howard Stern as a guest on the same night it leaked to the trades word that Dave was about to re-up for an additional two years beyond his current contract. This means Letterman will host CBS's 11:35 p.m. strip until 2012.

So word of Letterman's re-upping came out at the same time as word of Dave finishing within just one-tenth of a rating point of Conan in the metered markets, turning the attention of the Bright Shiny Light Chasers known as The Reporters Who Cover Television firmly over to Dave.

And, if you had to bet whether Monday's preliminary numbers will translate to a Letterman or a Conan win on the night when the final nationals come in -- bet on Dave. That's because, when Conan hosted "Late Night," his translation from early stats to final ratings was poorer than some of the other late-night shows. And that's because Conan does well in major markets like New York, Chicago and Dallas, which are accounted for in the early stats, but not so well in smaller, more rural markets, which are the ones that it takes Nielsen days more to tabulate.

Surveying the late-night booking landscape, it appears Letterman's camp decided to go after Conan in a big way this week.

Last night, Julia Roberts was Dave's guest; Eddie Murphy was Conan's -- we give the edge to Dave. Tonight, Letterman's got Kathy Griffin making her first visit to the show in a dozen years, as well as Stupid Human Tricks, Sonic Youth and Phoenix Suns star Steve Nash. Conan? He's got Dane Cook. For Thursday, Dave's booked Denzel Washington and the Jonas Brothers (eek!), while Conan's got -- Norm MacDonald and Jim Gaffigan.

"I'm backstage with your staff and your staff says to me, 'You know, this is a big night. . . . This is the night we think we're going to beat 'The Tonight Show'!" Stern told Dave on Monday night, to the consternation of Dave, who kept trying to change the subject -- which Stern would have none of, because Stern is Stern's favorite subject.

"This is big pressure," Stern prattled on merrily, after swatting aside Letterman's efforts to compel him to talk instead about Sacha Baron Cohen.

"We gotta beat this Conan. I mean, for God sakes, how are you feeling, that Jay left late-night television? And now we got a new guy to compete with?" said Stern, sounding dangerously like one cranky old guy talking to another cranky old guy at the shuffleboard court.

* * *

True to form, Showtime has ordered a second season of "Nurse Jackie" the day after it premiered. While most networks would want to see how a show does in its second week, this is not unusual behavior for Showtime.

"Nurse Jackie" stars Edie Falco as a nurse addicted to prescription painkillers she's taking for a bad back. Showtime doesn't say so, but we'll tell you this is something of an inside joke in Hollywood. That's because if you laid, head to toe, every Hollywood celebrity who has gone into rehab to deal with an addiction to "prescribed medication" for "back pain," they would reach from the Hollywood sign to Santa Monica.

Anyway, "Jackie" clocked 1.35 million viewers in its two Monday telecasts combined, according to Nielsen, which Showtime says is the biggest crowd for one of its new-series unveilings since 2004. That puts it ahead of "Dexter," "The Tudors," "Weeds" and "Californication."

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