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Times still a-changin’ at NBC

Silverman's exit marks more experiments at network

There’s broad consensus in media circles that the TV business needs to evolve in order to survive. The question for NBC Universal, following its latest management shift, is whether the network is pursuing the right kind of change — delivering, in essence, change that you can believe in.

As NBC U CEO Jeff Zucker has made his corporate ascent, the company’s reply to critics and naysayers has been fairly consistent: You’re just resistant to, and afraid of, change.

It’s a powerful argument, and for those easily dazzled, a persuasive one. Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein eulogized Ben Silverman’s soon-expiring career as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment by noting that the exec is “loaded with bright ideas and not a prisoner of the past” in a broadcast sphere that “seems especially resistant to change.”

Except that the most successful networks, CBS and Fox, have arguably been the most conservative over the last few years — taking calculated risks but avoiding those that could let the bottom fall out on their business. Despite some recent development misfires, ABC has also hewn to this approach.

Indeed, there’s a fairly simple counterargument: Innovation is fine, but only when those new models work. If they experience the same high failure rate associated with most creative endeavors, then change amounts to little more than reshuffling deck chairs.

Zucker was willing to explore new ways of doing business early on. What NBC hasn’t always acknowledged is that traditional templates existed for a reason, and the boldness required to shake things up can easily backfire.

So while it’s convenient to dismiss critics as resistant to out-of-the-box thinking, that ignores the (admittedly somewhat unfair) ability of reporters to assess how well new applications have performed with the benefit of hindsight.

To Zucker’s credit, some of NBC U’s initiatives — Hulu, the fourth hour of “Today,” the gradual Tom Brokaw-to-Brian Williams baton pass at “NBC Nightly News” — have worked out better than most anticipated.

The failures, however, are conspicuous. NBC has been particularly aggressive in pushing the boundaries of news standards, as it did most recently with “The Wanted,” a series that brought reality-TV values and movie-thriller editing to investigative reporting. Journalistic purists howled — and the show has also tanked in the ratings.

An emphasis on product-integration deals that more profoundly weave advertising into programs such as “Knight Rider” didn’t help those series survive any longer than conventional dramas. And the shift to “The Apprentice” as the linchpin of NBC’s once-dominant Thursday lineup turned out to be a temporary bandage, not an enduring cure.

NBC’s latest gamble, stripping Jay Leno at 10 p.m. beginning this fall, has also been viewed skeptically by rival execs and some analysts, who fear that the cost savings associated with the maneuver will be offset by losses in affiliate news, latenight and overall primetime market share. In this case, one man’s “out-of-the-box thinking” could wind up being another’s “throwing in the towel at 10 o’clock.”

Hiring Silverman was clearly intended to be an unorthodox, not-business-as-usual-anymore choice. And that it was.

Yet while much of the tumult surrounding Silverman’s tenure had little to do with NBC’s actual programming and performance, in the final analysis, it’s difficult to say that the marriage took.

NBC’s bold talk has also fostered a sense that change is at times being advanced to obscure other deficiencies. When Zucker said at business conferences and in interviews that NBC is “mostly a cable company now,” his comments can’t help but sound less like avant-garde thinking than an alibi because the network is doing poorly.

The pronouncement that the network was “managing for (profit) margins and not for ratings” felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy — by steadfastly focusing on the former, the chances of generating the latter seemed sure to diminish.

Questioning these statements does not necessarily make one a fuddy-duddy.

Nevertheless, Zucker has cleverly counterpunched critics by suggesting that if NBC doesn’t evolve, it will end up like the newspaper industry. After all, who are we — in this case a trade paper, struggling along with other print outlets — to throw stones?

But not all journalists believe in clinging to precedent even if it means going down with the ship. We just resent the possible indignity of abandoning our principles and standards if we’re going to drown anyway.

Everyone in the old-guard media is grasping for life rafts right now, and the currents are flowing so rapidly that NBC still could find one. In the interim, though, Zucker’s main response seems to be that if you have the temerity to observe that NBC’s boat is leaking, it’s not because the hull is porous; rather, it’s simply because you’re too stupid to recognize that the water is rising all around us.

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