NBC Plunges into brave U world

Surviving TV is good training for the film biz

It’s hard to picture NBC chairman Bob Wright with his hands pointed skyward, wearing a bright yellow poncho and screaming in a high-pitched voice aboard Universal Studios’ Jurassic Park ride, taking the big plunge toward the unpleasant drenching that waits below.

Still, that’s just one bit of due diligence he should consider as General Electric prepares to join the elite ranks of Financially Integrated Network-Studio Youth Nabobs (or FIN-SYN, for short) — media titans who ride the cultural waves in pursuit of the under-50 set.

Like many who cling to their bachelorhood beyond their peers, NBC’s long-deferred marriage to a studio, Vivendi Universal, finds the network both better prepared for its role than many anticipated but nevertheless apt to be confused at times by its new partner. Yet the 17 years that Wright has spent shepherding NBC have left him and the company well-prepared to take on the perceived volatility of the movie business, in part because the TV world with which he’s well acquainted is currently no less volatile.

GE’s legendary aversion to risk was long used to explain its reluctance to hook up with a studio — the vast expenditures and unpredictable returns of the film business having appeared unpalatable to a company that left daily stock updates next to nightly pillow mints at its corporate retreats.

Plenty has change since CBS and ABC began grappling with the blessings of synergy. Film studios have put an emphasis on movie “franchises” — a term that by its very nature evokes consumer products, not artistic gambles — while risks in television have steadily increased.

The rapid pace of television, in fact, requires more split-second decision-making than movies, from guessing right on the next so-called reality show to anteing up — or taking a pass — on broadcast rights to major sports franchises.

It’s NBC, after all, that in two separate deals committed $5.7 billion to televise the Olympics over a dozen years, through 2012, while passing on NBA basketball (only to see hoops’ Nielsen scoring percentage plummet on ABC) and launching the short-lived XFL.

It’s also NBC that missed a chance to lock up “ER” for renewal in the 1990s, resulting in a payout of more than $850 million to Warner Bros. Television over the next three years. And it was NBC that just spent an entire summer marketing “Coupling” and “Whoopi” — down to cultivating controversy over sexual antics and political incorrectness, respectively — only to have viewers respond with a collective yawn.

Finally, it’s NBC that juggled its lineup by shifting “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” a scheduling gambit that looked good on paper but hasn’t panned out. Not only has the network gained little in the show’s new Tuesday timeslot, but its Friday roster has cratered since “SVU” left the precinct. “Boomtown” has already been benched, and heavily promoted “Miss Match” has lived down to its name ratingswise.

Compared to all of that, trying to decide on Universal’s upcoming film slate — another sequel to “The Mummy” (yep) or “The Hulk” (nope) — sounds like a relative piece of cake. And while nothing is a given — as evidenced by the over-thought “Hulk,” which director Ang Lee turned into “Dense and Dense-ability” instead of a destructive romp — there’s certainly no less unpredictability there than in the wacky, ever-shifting TV landscape.

Feature blockbusters do cost far more to produce and market than TV shows, but GE can always increase its comfort level (and mitigate potential damage) by adopting Paramount’s restrained approach, which reduces the chances both of smacking one into the cheap seats and badly striking out. Moreover, Wright’s history running NBC betrays a willingness to spend big bucks strategically, as the Olympic deals demonstrate.

It’s also not like Universal doesn’t have reliable franchises from which to draw, whether it’s the upcoming monster mash “Van Helsing” or continuing to tap into those street racers until they’re “Incredibly Fast, Unbelievably Furious.”

On the flip side, those gray-suited folks at GE might be well advised to bail out of the theme park game as soon as they can find a sap to rescue them, especially if a recent summertime foray to Universal Studios is any indication.

Beyond the overall malaise affecting that business, my guess is anyone over the age of 16 would consider a full day at Universal pretty close to Dante’s third level of Hell. On a blistering August day, all I remember is a lot of overweight kids running around soaking wet, and waiting in long lines for attractions that don’t really approximate rides.

Surrounded by other sweaty people, the crowd was bathed in an annoying mist to dampen the heat or smell, take your pick. By the time I’d visited “Shrek 4-D” and “Terminator 3-D,” all I could think about was that if the choice was to “D” or not to “D,” I’d take the latter.

Granted, theme parks have struggled to keep pace with today’s media-saturated culture, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks put an overall crimp in tourism for which park proprietors bear no blame.

Many of that industry’s problems, however, stem from misguided strategic moves, such as Disney’s California Adventure — a conceptually flawed enterprise that proffers skipping the state’s natural wonders to spend the day at knockoff versions in Anaheim.

Fortunately, NBC and Universal already have a web of common interests that should help them bridge the rough patches in their budding relationship, beginning with the assortment of cable channels at their disposal.

Adding NBC’s Bravo, MSNBC and CNBC to U’s USA, Sci Fi and Trio creates a world of possibilities even before they toss flagship broadcaster NBC and Telemundo into the mix, provided they can be inspired to get along like the gang on “The Brady Bunch,” not the contestants on “Dog Eat Dog.”

So if not entirely a match made in heaven, this union (which is still awaiting regulatory approval) comes close enough that NBC should feel pretty good about sacrificing its long-held independence.

That said, two facts remain indisputable, and Wright can probably attest to both of them: Marriages always require a degree of compromise, and there are plenty of ways to get soaked in the entertainment business, even with the yellow poncho.

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