Back in 1986, when G.E. acquired NBC, the jokes—most of them from within, courtesy of Johnny Carson and David Letterman—centered on the question of what the hell a toaster company knew about broadcasting. These days, the unofficial in-house critique of the network comes from 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy, whose combination of insane paranoia and pie-in-the-sky grandiosity makes him the very model of a modern major media-conglomerate executive. And recently, Jack has been sounding glum. “I’ll have you know,” he snarled at a rival a few weeks ago, “that Barry Diller and I are working on a whole new approach to media … combining all … the … digital … God, just let me drink!” The scalpel edge of that gag was angled toward former NBC programming chief Ben Silverman, who is now in business with Diller, but it came closer than perhaps even 30 Rock’s writers might have imagined to slashing NBC Universal’s current CEO and reviled wonder boy, Jeff Zucker.
This week, media giant Comcast, a cable-Internet-telephone company without much experience as a content provider (most of the basic-cable channels it owns are microentities like the Golf Channel and the Style Network), is expected to take its first step toward purchasing a controlling interest in NBC Universal, which includes a venerable movie studio, a fistful of very successful cable channels, and NBC—at 83, the oldest broadcasting network in America and, arguably, the least attractive. Although the New York Times has already pronounced this a bad deal (not a phrase to gladden the hearts of stockholders when the word billions is involved), it’s hard not to be curious about what the future of a broadcast network in the hands of a cable company will look like. Particularly a broadcast network in such deep trouble. NBC has risen from the ashes before—The Cosby Show helped pull it from worst to first in the eighties, and Friends, Seinfeld, and ER transformed it a decade later. But this time its pulse seems weaker and the market forces militating against a comeback feel more ominous.
It’s easy to enumerate how dire things are for the network: The fourth-place finishes, night after night, in both total viewers and the 18-to-49-year-old demographic that still serves as TV’s gold standard. The absence—for the third year running—of any new hit show. (For the week ending November 1, NBC placed exactly one series in the top 30.) The continued attrition of the network’s Thursday-night lineup, which throughout the eighties and nineties was the bedrock of both NBC’s wide appeal and its yearly Emmy tally and now has only The Office and 30 Rock keeping that old tradition-of-quality candle burning. And the fact that the network’s one big prime-time ratings success—Sunday Night Football—goes off the air in early January, making the season’s second half, particularly after the Winter Olympics, even bleaker.
And when you step back for a broader view, things get even worse; they devolve from “What’s wrong with this network?” to “Why own a network at all?” Because this isn’t just about the new sitcom with Chevy Chase and the guy from The Soup pulling in only 5 million viewers, or Trauma failing to become the next ER. This is about a company that has lately seemed to hold in contempt the very idea of a broadcast network, and that has become a symbol of the death of ambition in an industry that, in its glory days, attempted to program for both mass and class. Without that goal, a network is nothing but a basic-cable channel with a gloomier business plan and an uglier balance sheet.
NBC’s latest Dark Age began a few years ago, but worsened last December, when Zucker, who has run or overseen the network’s entertainment programming since 2000, announced that Jay Leno, the departing host of the Tonight Show, who was grumbling about handing the reins over to Conan O’Brien, had won a whopper of a consolation prize: five hours of prime time a week. Good-bye, five scripted dramas. Hello, one cheap-to-make replacement that, for all the promises about new concepts and creative rejuvenation, would end up being a bland clone of Leno’s Tonight Show, when it arrived ten months later. Zucker hung tough when his decision was trashed by TV writers angry that a talk show was going to put many of them out of work, and critics who, noting that Leno’s late-night run had not been distinguished by a whole lot of innovation, saw the move as a statement: We’re not even going to pretend we’re trying anymore.
Zucker saw it as a statement as well: This is a business, and we’re in it to make money. Phrases like “managing for margins” (meaning “We don’t care if fewer people watch as long as we make a profit”) were incanted as new gospel. When critics carped, he shrugged; when the head of the network’s Boston affiliate threatened not to air the show, NBC slapped him back in line. Leno, Zucker explained, would provide 92 weeks of original programming over two years for a small fraction of what it costs to produce and license scripted dramas. Preemptively redefining success downward, NBC let it be known that a barely detectable 1.5 rating among 18-to-49-year-olds (meaning consistent last-place finishes) would be an occasion for boardroom high fives.