2010 could see TV changes

Questions range from NBC, Comcast to Olympics and Emmys

It took just 16 hours to resolve the TV biz’s first burning question of 2010.

But the brutal rights battle between Time Warner Cable and Fox, peacefully settled on New Year’s Day, was not the only unresolved issue facing the industry at the dawn of the decade (and yes, for the purposes of this report, the “new decade” began Friday).

That list of 2010’s hot topics includes several high-profile contract negotiations, the launch of a handful of cable networks and potential fallout from high-profile talent shifts.

Topping the roster of unanswered questions for 2010, of course, is how the Comcast acquisition of NBC Universal (or, as Peacock execs like to more gently call it, the “joint venture”) will shake out.

Jeff Zucker appears to be a lock to remain at the conglom, having just signed a contract extension — although Hollywood execs skeptically still question whether he’ll be around when Comcast officially gets the keys.

There’s also the unresolved issue of how the combined companies’ channels will be integrated, and how duties will be realigned between NBC U and Comcast execs — particularly on the cable side.

Comcast will also probably have to make some concessions to Washington regulators in order to get the deal approved. One guess: Comcast will be forced to sell a handful of NBC-owned TV stations, perhaps to a minority-owned station group, to appease lawmakers.

Other unknowns set to grab headlines in 2010:

– With the eight-year, $52 million Emmy contract set to expire after this year, the heat is on for the TV Academy to make a new deal with broadcasters.

Webheads, however, aren’t too keen on paying as much for the kudocast’s four-network “wheel” this time. A group led by Sony’s Steve Mosko is even shopping a rival awards show. Adding to the problem: NBC will air the Emmycast in August this year, which won’t help the event’s ratings perf.

For now, the TV Acad isn’t even sure who will lead the charge into the network negotiations: A December election to determine the org’s chairman-CEO was too close to call. A runoff vote between incumbent John Shaffner and challenger Brian Seth Hurst is set for later this week.

– Emmy has nothing, however, on “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell.

Cowell, who makes around $45 million a year, isn’t committed to “Idol” beyond this year. That’s led to quite a bit of negotiating in the media, as people around Cowell, including his brother, have made it pretty well known that Cowell doesn’t want to continue with the top-rated competish.

But Cowell has made similar claims in the past — and most believe it’s all a negotiating ploy to (a) finally get a U.S. version of his U.K. smash “The X Factor” onto Fox and (b) make his hefty payday even heftier.

Most observers believe that this will finally be the year that the oft-rumored “X Factor” finds a home, probably in the fall, on Fox.

– Speaking of “Idol,” the show enters its ninth season without Paula Abdul for the first time — and with new judge Ellen DeGeneres. Kick in a more competitive crop of shows on rival nets, as well as the Winter Olympics in February, and ratings gurus will be anxiously waiting to see whether “Idol’s” erosion intensifies or is perhaps held off by all the interest in the show’s changes.

– A clearer picture should also emerge by spring on the fate of NBC’s “The Jay Leno Show.”

Few believe that “Leno” will make it to a second season in its current Monday-through-Friday 10 p.m. configuration. But beyond that, all scenarios are likely on the table.

That might include a new timeslot (a weeknight half-hour monologue at 8?), a shortened run (Leno at 10, three nights a week?) or a parting of ways altogether. Any attempt to stick with the status quo could finally spark a revolt among affiliates, which have so far bit their tongues as their late newscast ratings have hit the skids.

Meanwhile, as they figure out NBC’s “Leno” conundrum, Peacock execs will also have to figure out what to do with “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien.” With O’Brien’s ratings continuing to dip vs. David Letterman, look for big tweaks to appear on the yakker in the new year.

– Beyond the latenight wars, the evening news battle is just entering a new chapter.

Although Diane Sawyer’s ascension to ABC’s “World News” hasn’t changed the competitive game yet, her tenure is still brand new. Pundits will be keeping a close eye on the Diane vs. Katie vs. Brian battle in the first part of the year.

Ditto the morning news race, where George Stephanopoulos is just getting his feet wet on “Good Morning America.” And to complete the domino effect at ABC News, the division must next announce Stephanopoulos’ permanent replacement on “This Week” (with Jake Tapper and Terry Moran believed to be the front-runners).

– U.S. TV rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympics are up for grabs this year, with ESPN/ABC, Fox and a joint CBS/Turner bid all rumored to be in the works vs. incumbent NBC Universal.

Comcast’s acquisition of NBC U adds an interesting wrinkle to what is expected to be the priciest deal yet (beyond the Peacock’s previous $2 billion pact for 2010 and 2012).

– The syndication battlefield will begin to heat up, as Bonnie Hunt and Tyra Banks exit the stage — and the industry preps for Oprah Winfrey’s 2011 exit. Among the issues to keep an eye on: Warner Bros.’ “Ellen DeGeneres Show” renegotiations, as that gabber’s deals with NBC stations are up in 2011. ABC stations will also have to think about their post-“Oprah” plans. And new hosts may still decide the time is right to enter the daytime talker ranks.

– As for Winfrey, a clearer picture of her OWN cabler will emerge this year, as the channel preps for its Jan. 1, 2011, launch. At some point, Winfrey and Discovery will have to more officially announce what the host’s onscreen involvement with the channel will look like.

Other big cable launches in 2010 will include Discovery’s kids-oriented joint venture with Hasbro, as well as Scripps’ Cooking channel (which replaces FLN in the third quarter). Fox Reality Channel, meanwhile, disappears by the spring, when it’s replaced by Nat Geo Wild.

– Besides the inevitable shuffles at the merged Comcast/NBC Universal, executive shuffles are already in the cards at several other companies.

The top jobs at BBC Worldwide and RDF USA remain empty (as does the key programming gig at Comedy Central), while rumors continue to swirl about changes at other spots (such as MTV). Discovery just went through its own slew of shuffles as 2009 ended.

– Other questions being asked: Is an ad recovery in the cards, and how might that be reflected during this spring’s upfront sales season? Have local stations seen the worst of their economic slowdown, or are more waves of layoffs in the offing? Is this the year the networks finally, truly start taking summer seriously — or will they once again cede viewership and momentum to cablers?

Also, will a viable cross-platform ratings measurement from Nielsen emerge to satisfy its frustrated network clients? Will rumors of a pay service on Hulu come to fruition? Will rumors of Disney’s and CBS’ involvement in Apple’s subscription TV venture come true — and what will it look like? With the guild contracts up in 2011, will the sabre rattling begin once again?

And now that the Time Warner Cable/Fox retrans talks have ended peacefully (and with undisclosed terms), will other renegotiations — including another potentially hairy one with Disney/ABC — come up with similar results?

There’s never been a more tumultuous time in TV land, as a sour economy has impacted ad revenue and emerging technologies are changing the way people consume home entertainment.

With the economy starting to recover, and new ways to watch TV about to be unleashed, 2010 may well be the most eventful year since at least 1995, when two networks launched; two of the original Big Three changed owners; the Telecommunications Act (signed into law in 1996) was drawn up; the modern Internet took off commercially; and NBC began its late 1990s
winning streak.

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