NBC fills in the margins with notes for a new strategy

SWEPT AWAY: Fox says "Dollhouse," with Eliza Dushku, will be off the air until December.
SWEPT AWAY: Fox says "Dollhouse," with Eliza Dushku, will be off the air until December. (Carin Baer/fox)
By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, October 23, 2009

NBC stunned the Hollywood community Thursday when Jeff Gaspin, the latest NBC Universal Television Entertainment chairman, announced the network had done an abrupt about-face and would no longer program to profit margins.

"The goal is not to manage for margins. It is to put the best possible programs we can on the air," Gaspin said in Thursday's blockbuster announcement in an interview with Web site the Wrap.

"Programming to margins" is loosely defined as "Jay Leno."

The idea is that a network can make a tidy profit on shows that aren't winning the ratings in their time slots -- may not even be finishing second or third -- so long as the show is really, really cheap to produce.

Meanwhile, the competing network that's mopping up in the ratings in those same time slots is paying through the nose for expensive scripted series that, yes, are getting those boffo numbers, but are also negatively affecting that network's profit margin and making that network feel a perfect fool.

Leno's show debuted six weeks ago and has yet to discover its ratings resting point; over the past week, Leno has taken a hit against baseball playoff programming on Fox and TBS. But Leno wasn't NBC's only stab at programming to margins. Back in 2006, the network announced it was going to pull scripted fare from the 8 p.m. time slot, across the board, and replace it with low-cost reality programming. Back then it wasn't called "programming to margins"; it was "TV 2.0." Seriously.

By way of demonstrating NBC's sincerity, Gaspin noted in his interview that NBC had recently made "a premium deal" with J.J. Abrams, adding "we bought Bruckheimer."

He's referring, of course, to the TV industry It Boy Abrams, whose "Lost" helped put ABC back into the ratings game a few years ago (though his credits also include ABC's "Alias," which was not very successful; ABC's "What About Brian," which was a flop; and Fox's "Fringe," which would have been DOA had Fox not kept it propped up in its early days with "American Idol" and "House" lead-ins).

The other reference is to Jerry Bruckheimer, who is the current King of Colon-ization -- you know, "CSI," "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: NY."

We attempted to speak with Gaspin directly but were told he was "traveling"; NBC reps did not make any other suit available by press time.

The TV industry's reaction to Gaspin's announcement ranged from complete dismissal to cautious optimism.

Cynics noted that even in the darkest days of NBC's Programming to Margins scourge, the network had tried an earlier drama series with Bruckheimer, which flopped. And NBC had jumped into the bidding war -- which it won -- for Aaron Sorkin's much ballyhooed "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," which also flopped.

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