Will Somebody Please Save NBC?

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

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.

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

Who could have guessed he was being optimistic? Remarkably, given the calculatedly low expectations that NBC had publicized, The Jay Leno Show has, on several occasions, managed to fall short of even that painfully modest ratings target. And Zucker’s decision to cancel Southland, a promising cop series from ER czar John Wells that had yet to air a single episode of its second season, came off as such a brazen act of bird-flipping that Wells, a powerful and politic writer-producer who was recently elected to run the Writers Guild of America, West, issued a statement saying he was “disappointed that NBC no longer has the time periods available to support the kind of critically acclaimed series that was for so many years a hallmark of their success.” “Drop dead” would have been more concise.

Having just weathered the two-year run of Silverman—a tenure during which he accomplished little more than securing a guest shot on Entourage and serving as a chew toy for entertainment-industry blogzilla Nikki Finke—Zucker cannot be enjoying this attention at a moment when his and his company’s future are the subject of high-stakes speculation. Even his own lieutenant Jeff Gaspin, who had been overseeing NBC’s successful cable channels before he replaced Silverman this past summer, seems to know how badly this fall’s moves have been received; in October, he told the website The Wrap that NBC is “in it to win it.” That sounds awfully like a repudiation of his boss’s rationale for handing the company’s car keys to Leno, and is also a tough argument to make at a moment when your network is not only finishing fourth but losing some time slots to reruns and, even once, to a basic cable series (FX’s Sons of Anarchy).

Zucker’s upward trajectory at NBC since 1992, when he became the producer of the moneymaking flagship Today show at the tender age of 26, has been fueled by his ability to swat away criticism by convincing those above and below him that he knows exactly what he’s doing. And a case can be made that his bottom-line programming theory is, though unpopular, smart. Even Zucker’s competitors haven’t refuted his primary argument—that the low cost of producing Leno makes it more financially attractive than what would probably be a very mixed bag of dramas and news hours. Sure, NBC would rather have a 10 p.m. hit like CBS’s The Mentalist, but for every show like that, there’s another on the order of ABC’s Eastwick, which is attracting a meager Leno-size audience and is unlikely ever to recoup a dime.

Zucker suggests that ratings don’t matter. That’s not an argument you’ll ever hear from someone in first place.

Perhaps most important, to define Zucker only by his oversight of NBC is to miss the bigger picture. NBC Universal also counts among its TV properties Bravo, Telemundo, Syfy, and USA Network. And while NBC itself may be flailing, Bravo, with its gay-friendly mix of smart food-and-fashion reality shows and virtual-drag-queen housewives, has soared to new ratings highs this year. So has Syfy: One can legitimately ask why Zucker paid some genius more than twelve cents to rebrand the Sci Fi Channel with a stupid misspelling, but last summer, the channel launched a new drama series, Warehouse 13, that has become the biggest hit in its history. And USA’s booming lineup of escapist dramas—Burn Notice, Royal Pains, White Collar, Psych—is scoring such good ratings that it has become, in effect, NBC’s missing lineup of scripted prime-time shows. If, across any particular time slot, these channels, under Zucker’s supervision, are all feeding NBC Universal’s profits by aggregating a large and demographically diverse audience, maybe NBC itself only needs to be one spoke in the wheel. Money is money, no matter where it comes from.

On the other hand: If you don’t really believe in network television as a workable model anymore, why run a network? Broadcast TV, even in an age of infinite options, is still an institution with heft and force, but Zucker has often behaved like the grudging caretaker of a dying giant. His spin on falling numbers? The whole system is broken! NBC, his story goes, is always a victim of market shifts or an evolving media universe, never of plain old bad ideas and weak programming. This self-justification has led to some painful contortions: Last year, for instance, Zucker told the trade journal TVWeek that ratings don’t matter. “We are in an … environment where the difference between first and fourth or second or third is incredibly minimal,” he said. That’s not an argument you’ll ever hear from someone in first place—nor, by the numbers, has it proved true; on some nights, NBC’s competitors draw double its ratings or more.

And then came the Leno move, for which Zucker was so intent on the cost-per-hour benefit to NBC that he failed to anticipate the collateral damage. With its wee audience—around 5 million people per night—Leno has robbed the network of viewers that could be watching promos for its following evening’s lineup, which means that, except when it airs football or The Biggest Loser, NBC tends to start each evening’s prime-time schedule with an already diminished audience. Handing 10 p.m. to Leno has also hurt ratings—severely in some cities—for the late-night newscasts of NBC’s affiliates. That, in turn, has dinged the Tonight Show, which, in the shaky hands of Conan O’Brien, now loses to David Letterman (who, even mid-scandal, seems to be having the time of his life). And that weakens NBC’s Jimmy Fallon and helps CBS’s Craig Ferguson. Back in prime time, NBC’s highest-rated scripted series, the durable warhorse Law & Order: SVU, has suffered because of its eviction from its longtime 10 p.m. slot. And on October 26, a humiliating report in Advertising Age revealed that NBC has been able to charge an average of only $57,486 for a 30-second ad on Leno, in contrast to CBS’s $127,000 for a new hit like The Good Wife and ABC’s $240,000 for a demographic blockbuster like Grey’s Anatomy.

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

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.

Will Somebody Please Save NBC?