In dying color: No. 4 NBC has cast itself in the role of the fading peacock

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where there's mire, there's muck, and NBC is just the place to find both. It's long been a kooky little tradition that when TV columnists and critics write about which of the four major broadcast networks is doing worst in the ratings, they say it is "mired in fourth place" or "mired" in third. The practice seems to be phasing out, but then, networks seem to be phasing out, too.

None is phasing faster than NBC, the once-proud-as-a-peacock establishment that is now mired in fourth, behind Fox, behind everybody. Compounding their humiliation, network executives have had to undo, at tremendous expense, their remake of that cultural institution "The Tonight Show," returning it to Jay Leno, killing Leno's ballyhooed prime-time hour and ousting the conspicuously talented Conan O'Brien from his "Tonight" berth after only seven months.

Things are ever-so-much worse even than back in the late '70s and early '80s, when longtime programming wizard Fred Silverman picked NBC as the one network he failed to rejuvenate. His signature flop was a show called "Supertrain," which lasted five short months in 1979 and lost a heap of dough. Battles and tantrums in the executive suites contributed to an abiding sense of collapse.

It was arguably the lowest point in the network's history. But in 1984, Silverman and his brilliant protege Brandon Tartikoff brought Bill Cosby back to television in "The Cosby Show" -- a social milestone that proved to be the sitcom that revived sitcoms. "Cosby" ignited Thursday nights as the birthplace of "Must See TV"; it was on Thursdays that such hits as "L.A. Law," "ER," "Hill Street Blues," "Cheers," "Family Ties" and, later, "Friends" and "Seinfeld" appeared.

And it was Tartikoff who hastily and famously scribbled two words on a piece of paper, handed the note to producer Michael Mann and made television history. The two words were "MTV Cops." The show that resulted was "Miami Vice," which introduced a new, hip sensibility to prime time and, as few shows had done, made a point of stressing the visual.

Was this the golden age of NBC? It was one of 'em, one of several great Peacock Epochs during which NBC dominated network television and set the highest of broadcast standards. The Golden Age was the first decade of television (roughly 1948 to 1960), when a large percentage of every week's prime-time fare consisted of live drama or comedy -- great plays like Rod Serling's "Patterns," great comedy like Wally Cox as "Mr. Peepers."

And there was "Your Show of Shows," a witty Broadway revue every Saturday night, live from New York, just as "Saturday Night Live" would eventually be. NBC also thrived with the "Today" and "Tonight" shows (both invented by pioneering genius Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver) and, more gently, with "Kukla, Fran and Ollie," a deceptively simple puppet show that was one of the greatest children's programs ever.

What made the gold shine brighter in NBC's golden age was that people could see its color. They could see the color of everything, because NBC began telecasting programs "in living color" before cheap ABC or sluggish CBS did. With every color show, NBC was pushing the color TV sets made by RCA, which owned the network. The Justice Department apparently saw no problem with this.

NBC had other periods in which it shone more brightly than its competitors. The '80s and the '90s saw the network aglow not only with ratings success but, thanks to new chairman Grant Tinker, who also teamed with Tartikoff, also with the reputation of being a quality operation. "Cheers," an innovative and warmhearted comedy, was kept on the air for a second season even though its first had been feeble in the ratings; eventually, it not only caught on, it triumphed.

While still running the network, Silverman decided to exhume as a company logo the old NBC Peacock, originally designed by an advertising agency to help RCA sell those then-pricey color TV sets. Many a baby boomer can easily recall NBC's animated peacock unfurling at the start of some major production, accompanied by a musical fanfare and announcer Mel Brandt intoning majestically, "The following program is brought to you in living color on NBC."

You can see those original peacock openings -- the birdie went through a few different versions -- at many Web sites. If you lived through TV's early days, the sound of that orchestral theme and the sense of auspiciousness may actually give your spine a tingle or two. They helped imbue the programs that they preceded with an exciting sense of event.

NBC is no longer owned by RCA; it's owned, for now, by General Electric, a company that has been an ill-suited, penny-pinching guardian -- sort of like Nicholas Nickleby's. If current plans are approved, meanwhile, NBC will soon pass into the mighty clutches of Comcast, the giant cable conglomerate. Sadly enough, Comcast is much less interested in the NBC Television Network than in all of the little niche cable networks that NBC owns: USA Network, Syfy, Telemundo and more.

Might the trademark "NBC" be retired and the TV network become just another cog in a large, empty capitalist apparatus -- one that plops out leisure-time product with the slick, chilly efficiency of an assembly line? It's possible that Comcast could be even more tightfisted an owner than GE and that NBC might be the first network to prove that the whole idea of broadcast networks really is over. It could prove it by dying.

And then all those shows, and those sparkling golden ages, will be consigned, like so much else in this new century, to memory, or to electronic bric-a-brac on the Web. One of the sites brandishing the animated peacock calls itself "" Imagine. Retro "Junk." I wouldn't want to be the one to tell Kukla, Fran or Ollie about that.

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