Last-place NBC fights back with exec shifts, new lineup

NBC is not expecting an immediate turnaround from its No. 4 status. But with last month’s promotion of Jeff Zucker to NBC U TV Group chairman — making him Bob Wright’s heir apparent –the network’s overhaul is shifting into high gear.

Zucker and NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly — who is even more under the gun –aggressively kicked off 2006 by reshaping the network’s development team. Ghen Maynard, second-in-command to Reilly, was shown the door last week, as were two of the net’s most senior development execs.

What’s more, Zucker named top lieutenant Marc Graboff as NBC Universal TV’s West Coast prexy, a job that gives him oversight of Reilly in some areas.

The pressure is on for a comeback. Aside from the immediate problems — hundreds of millions in lost ad revenue — there is the question of corporate pride, and corporate pressure.

The TV network is part of the GE empire, which prides itself on dominating every industry it enters, from light bulbs to nuclear reactors.

NBC is down a jaw-dropping 16% from last year among adults 18-49, posting a 3.1 rating (percent of overall TV viewers) and 8 share (percent of viewers watching at any given moment) — tied with Fox for last place among the Big Four nets. The Peacock also has sunk to third among total viewers, averaging 9.1 million.

It’s not just NBC: GE has been having problems in virtually every sector of its entertainment empire.

On the film side, NBC Universal still is smarting from the loss of DreamWorks following drawn-out negotiations with stringent GE dealmakers. Universal Pictures chair Stacey Snider has not yet renewed her contract, leading to nervous buzz within the studio. And the studio’s worldwide box office declined 3% in 2005 to $1.76 billion.

At the Peacock, Zucker has made moves that would counteract a longtime criticism: that NBC’s problems were worsened by his initial slowness to completely turn over the primetime reins to Reilly.

“Reilly has never really been given a chance to succeed or fail based on his record,” one industry sage says.

That appears to be starting to change, with Zucker spending more and more time working on other parts of his empire. As Zucker has gobbled up more power and turf at NBC U, he’s pushed himself further away from Burbank, allowing Reilly to sink or swim this development season.

When a network is down, it’s easy to overlook the bright side.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a single pundit who forecast the success of “My Name Is Earl,” the season’s top-rated new comedy. And even inside NBC, there were a number of suits who thought Reilly had lost his marbles for sticking by “The Office” after the show’s low-rated first season.

But both shows are on the rise, lending some momentum to the net’s much-ballyhooed return to a four-comedy block on Thursdays.

On the unscripted side, “The Biggest Loser” has turned into a quiet Nielsen heavyweight, while December saw a surprisingly strong start for brainless gameshow “Deal or No Deal.”

“It feels like the ice is starting to thaw,” Reilly says. “As unsexy as they are, the (network’s overall) ratings have remained stable. It hasn’t been a free-fall. There have been pockets of success.”

Another potential ray of light is the NFL’s return to NBC in September. There’s no predicting how well the Sunday night franchise will perform, but at the very least, it’s four hours of primetime Reilly no longer needs to worry about in the fall.

One of the benefits of being TV’s loser network is that taking chances is easier.

“Even though you feel like you’re under a world of crap, (being in last place) is one of the best times to make changes and bet on things you creatively believe in,” says “Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence, who argues that scribes looking for success would be wise to gravitate toward troubled nets.

“There’s more opportunity for writers when a network’s at the bottom than when they’re on the top,” he says. “When you’re on the bottom, your standards for what’s successful are lower and the execs are more patient.”

On a macro level, the merger of NBC and Universal has made the Peacock’s primetime problems less worrisome to the conglom’s overall bottom line. Newly acquired cablers USA Network and Sci Fi are veritable ATMs, padding the company’s profits and cushioning the blow of the broadcast net’s fall from grace.

And though its primetime woes are legions, NBC still does well in other dayparts. Its latenight lineup is as strong (and profitable) as ever, while the net’s news division is finding its footing after recent setbacks.

In primetime, the “Law & Order” franchise remains solid; a fading-but-powerful “ER” still pulls ‘em in on Thursdays; and the Olympics delivers a guaranteed blockbuster aud every two years.

While some observers saw Zucker’s handiwork in last week’s exec shuffles, Reilly insists he was the key architect of the changes.

“These were tough conversations,” he says. “These are individuals that I like personally and have a good professional relationship with. It’s the hard part of management.”

It’s also worth noting that few modern network entertainment presidents have a truly free hand to run their divisions. Whether it’s Leslie Moonves keeping an eye on Nina Tassler or Peter Chernin keeping Fox’s Peter Liguori in check, these days the truly big decisions at the Big Six get made by the Big Guns. (The situation is similar to complaints from former ABC chiefs of interference from Bob Iger and Michael Eisner.)

For Zucker and other top brass at NBC U, waiting for a recovery is the hard part.

“At some level there’s always a degree of impatience, especially when you’re talking about a company that was No. 1 for most of the last decade and hasn’t been in this position for a long time,” Zucker admits.

ABC endured five years of hell before “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” began the net’s salvation. Moonves needed almost as long before CBS was back on its feet.

The cyclical nature of the TV business ensures that every network, no matter how mighty, will get its turn in the Nielsen basement. And when that time comes, it’s never pretty.

The inevitable financial strain almost always translates into cost-cutting and penny-pinching.

And good news on the ratings or development fronts often gets overshadowed by all the industry noise about failure.

“The external perception problems won’t go away until we start performing better,” Reilly says. “That just goes with the territory.”

If the Peacock’s promising 2006 development yields a single “Housewives”-size hit, it’s not hard to see the net back in the game as soon as next year.

On the other hand, with tentpoles such as “Will & Grace,” “ER” and “The West Wing” fading or on their way out the door, it’s possible NBC could sink further, despite Peacock pronouncements that things have stabilized.

Zucker and Wright have steadfastly insisted Reilly has their full support, with Zucker scoffing at the notion that Reilly’s job is in danger.

When a network’s in fourth place, even the most clearly worded statements of support aren’t enough to end rumors of a possible regime change. That doesn’t mean top brass can’t try.

“I think a turnaround takes at least two to three years,” Zucker says. “Kevin and the team out there are planting seeds for that turnaround.”

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