In some ways, NBC’s mercurial shifts in strategy reflect Zucker’s own roots at the network. His first attention-getting accomplishment was turning the Today show into a powerhouse, a feat that required two skills—thinking brilliantly in three-to-six-minute increments and coming up with stunt programming. It’s the latter talent that he has, on occasion, brought to bear atop NBC. (Remember the god- awful reality gross-out series Fear Factor, or those “supersize” episodes of Friends that thwarted VCR programming and kept you from switching to the competition? His ideas.) But running a morning show doesn’t require thinking creatively across a weeklong grid of varying programs, creating a flow for 22 hours of prime time, or coming through with a mix of nighttime shows that serve the broad and deep constituency that has always defined a successful network.
Those aren’t Zucker’s skills, and as a consequence, the broadcast network of which Comcast may about to become the parent seems to lack an identity, a personality, even a recognizable vibe. Some might argue that the niche identities of cable channels don’t work for networks, which should be as broadly appealing as possible. That’s true in theory, but in practice networks now “brand” themselves all the time. Think about CBS’s motley crime-driven prime-time lineup, or the plethora of female-friendly dramas on ABC’s schedule, or of Fox, proud home of the Asshole Protagonist (whether it happens to be House, Gordon Ramsay, Jack Bauer, Simon Cowell, or Bart Simpson). A brand, whether on network or cable, reassures viewers that if they don’t change the channel, something that, in tone or content, is very much like the show they just watched (and presumably enjoyed) will be coming on soon. Network executives should thank God for lazy Americans; as they recently discovered to their almost ecstatic relief, even when watching a favorite show on DVR instead of live, nearly half of viewers 18 to 49 watch the ads.
But these days, with its lineup zigzagging from football to low-end cheapo reality like The Biggest Loser to botched onetime hits like Heroes to media pets like 30 Rock, NBC’s brand is scattershot. The face of the network, by virtue of sheer omnipresence, is Jay Leno, who, at 59, is not any network’s demographic ideal. He may not be killing NBC, as TV Guide recently speculated, but it’s beginning to feel like he’s participating in an assisted suicide. One thing’s already clear: Remaking an entire prime-time lineup in his familiarly peevish image was a Hail Mary pass, not a long-term business strategy. And one suspects the network knows it. With Jeff Gaspin already working hard to repair NBC’s relationship with the creative community by signing deals with high-profile producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and J. J. Abrams, it’s hard to imagine that he and Zucker are not beginning, very quietly, to consider a Plan B. That could involve paying off Leno and canceling his show, cutting it back to three or four nights a week to give the grid a little more flexibility, or even returning Leno, “by popular demand,” to the Tonight Show. Start sweating, Conan; Leno recently told a trade reporter he’d take that deal if he were asked to—a seemingly offhand comment that sounds a lot like the beginning of a gigantic face-saving maneuver. In any case, even if, as media watchers gossip, the 44-year-old Zucker is unlikely to survive for long under Comcast, the various regulatory hurdles the deal has to clear will give him at least a year either to right the ship or sink it.
In the meantime, you can buy his theory that the broadcast nets are dinosaurs in an era of hundreds of basic- and pay-cable options and on-demand programming. And you wouldn’t be alone. But I propose that Comcast, which is probably viewing NBC as medicine it has to swallow in order to get its hands on NBC Universal’s other properties, would be bigger fools to toss in the towel on NBC. As Mad Men’s recent Kennedy-assassination episode reminded us, television, more than any other form, is unique in its ability to serve as a cultural unifier, to give even a niche nation the privilege and solace of sharing something—and not just at moments of tragedy. The Super Bowl, Election Night, the Olympics, American Idol, and even the not-quite-what-they-used-to-be Academy Awards are all reminders of network TV’s ability to create a national collective experience; even if you end up seeing the moment as a clip on YouTube, the origin can’t be denied. Attracting big audiences to a show week after week is difficult but not impossible. If creaky old NCIS can draw 20 million viewers, imagine what the combination of money, creativity, smart casting, production values, and an innovative broadcast-network programmer could do.
There’s no question that in order to survive, networks are going to have crib a few pages from the basic-cable playbook, cutting costs in lower-viewership time slots (so long, soap operas) and programming fewer original hours per week. But that doesn’t mean the next incarnation of NBC—which, with this deal, would effectively be the first network of the post-network era—should end up as nothing more than an unambitious amalgam of low-cost, low-risk programming and copious reruns, a USA Network with an eight-hour version of the Today show. As much as Jeff Zucker would like to cast the blame elsewhere, substituting number-crunching defensiveness for enterprise, adventure, and showmanship is what helped get NBC into this mess.