NBC takes Wright turn back

If there’s one man in television who believes that necessity is the mother of invention it’s Bob Wright. After riding out the most tumultuous years in his rocky seven-year tenure, the NBC chairman has major expansion plans for his Peacock empire in 1994.

“It’s been quite a roller-coaster ride,” says Wright. “But a lot of the problems are well behind us and we can build on what we have. The key goal in the coming year is expanding our entertainment programming ownership.”

At least Wright is in a position to chart out that course. A year ago he was about to hunker down at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and play fire chief, reckoning with a network that had gone into a tailspin.

Now, it seems, “NBC is finally returning from the dead,” says Oppenheimer & Co. media tout Jessica Reif.

According to Wright, the web is gearing up for a substantial uptick in in-house production and an aggressive search for allianceswith other major players. The NBC chairman declines specifics, but allows he is actively courting “relationships” with program suppliers.

“You see Time Warner and Paramount with their drives to start networks and even if they don’t do well, it’s bad for us,” says Wright. “We have to get more control of our entertainment programming. We don’thave any choice if we’re going to stay vital.”

There’s a consensus among industry observers that any so-called alliance will stop short of parent company General Electric selling off a majority stake in NBC — a long-rumored scenario.

“G.E. rode it out through the worst times,” says Bernstein Research media analyst Tom Wolzein, himself an NBC veteran. “Everything has a price, but I don’t think G.E. will get rid of NBC when it appears to be on the way back up.”

What a difference a year makes. NBC’s once-sterling lineup was in shambles a year ago with the departure of two of its key franchises, “Cheers” and “Late Night With David Letterman.” The network’s daytime lineup was a distant third in the ratings, as was “The NBC Nightly News” in the evening news race. And the infamous exploding G.M. truck incident on “Dateline: NBC” would soon tarnish the web and bring down thenews division’s mercurialprexy Michael Gartner.

But the network battled back. Wright brought in a passel of high-profile honchos. He replaced Gartner with CBS News veteran Andy Lack, who began an aggressive news division overhaul. He brought in veteran producer Don Ohlmeyer to oversee the entertainment division. And Wright lured former Republican politico Roger Ailes, who had scored big taking Rush Limbaugh from radio to TV, to head up CNBC.

Meanwhile, the network was spending billions under top jock Dick Ebersol to bolster its sports franchises. Rights were snapped up not only for the 1996 Summer Olympics, but groundbreaking profit-sharing deals were cut with the National Basketball Assn. and Major League Baseball. NBC also made a preemptive strike to keep its AFC franchise in the fold.

“NBC’s been the most aggressive by far in keeping its major sports act together,” says Steve Auerbach, exec VP/national broadcast of DeWitt Media. “My guess is when it all is said and done it will be the one network that’s making a lot of money off of sports.”

Distrib plan hatched

In addition, amid all the turmoil, Wright was carrying out the blueprint to increase NBC’s distribution system. The network capitalized on cable reregulation, using retransmission consent to solidify CNBC’s position and pave the way for the launch of a new basic cable network, “America’s Talking.” And after years of negotiations, NBC finally purchased SuperChannel, the pan-European satellite-delivered programmer.

There’s a pervasive sense coming from Wall Street, Madison Avenue and Hollywood that NBC is on the long road back.

The network is still No. 3 in primetime, though, after early predictions of disaster it has stopped its downward slide. Letterman was a huge loss, but Leno is hardly a disaster in economic terms. According to Madison Avenue sources ad rates are as high for “Tonight” as they were for Johnny Carson. “Nightly News,” under a new executive producer, ex-ABC News exec Jeff Gralnick, is challenging CBS for the No. 2 slot.

“Last season (was) as if NBC had no strategy at all — it was as if they decided to lay down and die,” says Auerbach, echoing the sentiment heard all over Madison Avenue. “This year the network was aggressive. Did everything work? No. But they attacked the other guys and in a lot of places it worked.”

Some disappointments

Indeed, there have been some disappointments, notably the high-profile Steven Spielberg series “seaQuest DSV” and some problems in daytime. However, the network defied the odds and held on to its Thursday post-“Cheers” primetime franchise, with breakouthit “Seinfeld” and popular freshman “Frasier” easily picking up the slack. Year to date, NBC has increased its primetime audience by 1%, with most growth coming from the key 18-49 demographic.

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