Typing Faster

October 13, 2009

NBC: The Little Dutch Boy of Broadcast Networks

Filed under: Kvetch, NBC, Southland, the biz — petertypingfaster @ 9:11 am

Like much of the industry, I’m still trying to figure out what the news of NBC’s cancellation of Southland means for teevee creatives long term. It’s undeniably a blow to scripted television, and it’s made all the worse by the fact that the only scenario in which it makes sense is one that’s pretty unpalatable.

NBC has given up. Completely and utterly.

Because the sad fact of the matter is, you CAN make money developing, producing and airing scripted shows. And the worst part of it? Two of the cable channels that are doing it are already owned by NBC Universal.

From a great article by Linda Holmes:

What makes this story particularly frustrating is that in spite of what you read about costs and splintering audiences and a future made up of nothing but variety shows, there are indications that there are ways to make money with scripted shows. A Newsweek profile in July of this year discussed the remarkable successes of the USA network under the guidance of Bonnie Hammer, who helped turn USA into a major moneymaker. What’s her strategy?

Good scripted shows, for one thing. Burn Notice, Monk, Psych, the new Royal Pains, and others. From that profile: “Of all NBCU’s properties, including the namesake broadcaster NBC and its Universal studio, USA has become the biggest earner, delivering roughly $1 billion in profits last year.” Hammer is not a snob — she has embraced USA’s relationship with professional wrestling. But her big strategy is good shows people like, and she’s making money. NBC Universal owns this network — how is its broadcast network making worse shows than, and making less money than, one of its cable properties? They’re all in Rockefeller Center — they’re in the building. Go ask them how they’re doing it.

A similar argument might be made in favor of SyFy (formerly Sci Fi), which has been getting surprisingly good returns from shows like Warehouse 13 and the new Stargate Universe (and is also an NBCU property). Look at AMC, which has put itself on the map as it never was in the past by making Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It took two dramas to move that network from one nobody took seriously to one everybody takes seriously.

And really that’s what’s at stake for NBC.


This is the broadcast network that brought the world Hill Street Blues. They brought the world St. Elsewhere, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, L.A. Law, Friends, ER, The West Wing, The Office, and 30 Rock.

NBC was the number one broadcast network for a decade. In the 1988-89 season, they won every week in the ratings for a full year. No one’s done that since.

There was a reason that NBC’s slogan was “Must See TV.”

But then things started going wrong. NBC became the little dutch boy of broadcast networks.

Or as I’d like to call it, the Jeff Zucker strategy.

Rather than develop new shows to replace hits that were soon to go off the air (Seinfeld, Friends, ER), NBC brass brought them back for additional seasons. When they had a gap in the schedule, rather than program something to fill it, they’d “Supersize” an episode of an existing show to make up the time.

Take this strategy to its logical conclusion and we’ve got NBC turning over five hours of prime time real estate to Jay Leno.

The problem with any temporary, stop gap, strategy, is that if you leave it long enough it runs the risk of becoming permanent.

From an article by Alan Sepinwall:

With the Jay Leno deal, they’ve created a vicious cycle environment where it will be all but impossible to develop new drama hits (both “Southland” and “SVU” have no business being on before 10), and so they’re not even going to bother. “Southland” wasn’t a great show yet, and probably would have struggled in its new Friday at 9 timeslot, but when you don’t air the new episodes at all, after already handing five hours of primetime real estate to Leno, you’re sending a very strong message to the Hollywood creative community: Don’t bother bringing anything interesting to us.

If you’re John Wells are you ever going to go back and work with NBC? You’d be crazy to even think about it!

NBC has given up, and the future of scripted programming on the peacock doesn’t look good.

I’m sure that NBC will scream poverty. Scripted shows are too expensive. They’re too hard to develop. We don’t have any choice but do what they’re doing (a lot like Canadian broadcasters that), too which I say bullshit.

If tiny cable channels can succeed, then so can you.

Back to the article by Linda Holmes.

Yes, costs are out of whack. Yes, audiences are getting smaller. Yes, the economics are going to require an adjustment. But cable network after cable network has expanded, not contracted, its commitments to drama: Showtime, FX, AMC, Lifetime, SyFy, TNT … the fact that the slices of pie are going to be smaller doesn’t mean there’s no life in scripted shows, and if you’re NBC and you made ER, and you made L.A. Law, and you made St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues and The West Wing, the day you throw your hands in the air and say “Heck with it, we’ll just use more Dateline instead of even giving the episodes of the new John Wells drama that are already in the can an opportunity to be seen by anyone” is a sad day.

Ultimately, if you’re going to function as a broadcast network, you have to be willing to gamble on your ability to have, and to support, people who have ideas. Survivor didn’t do great things for CBS because it’s unscripted; it did great things for CBS because it was an idea that worked, and so was American Idol, and so was ER, and so was Lost, and so was Mad Men. Five hours a week of The Jay Leno Show is not an idea; it is a dodge. It is a hole-plugging strategy so you don’t have to have an idea.

Come on NBC. Instead of standing there with your finger in the dike, it’s time for you to fix the damn thing instead.

It’s time to have an idea.


1 Comment »

  1. Nice info! Very cool post.I have looked over your blog a few times and I love it.Doesn’t it take up a lot of time to keep your blog so interesting ?

    Comment by Premium — October 17, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

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