How NBCUniversal’s Reorganization Reveals the Future of the TV Business

Brave New World Peacock
Courtesy of Steve Schofield/Peacock

The reorganization of NBCUniversal’s television business was prefaced by a windup that company insiders characterized as tortuous and demoralizing. When the moment finally came, it provided only some clarity as to whom the internal winners and losers would be in a restructuring that is expected to be broad in scope. But it did demonstrate that NBCUniversal, like its peers, is having to discard old ideas about troop placement in the age of the streaming wars.

NBCU announced Thursday a new leadership structure under Mark Lazarus, chairman of the television and streaming units. The headline news was the departure of NBC Entertainment chairman Paul Telegdy — the architect NBC’s unscripted success who launched franchises such as “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent,” and recently became the subject of allegations of racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior.

An investigation into claims against Telegdy will continue even after the exec’s exit. So will questions about who’s running what at NBC. Frances Berwick, who oversaw lifestyle cable channels including Bravo and E!, will now head an entertainment business unit spanning broadcast and cable. To be determined is who will serve as head of entertainment programming for those networks and NBCU’s Peacock streaming service — a job that was passed on by Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s head of local-language originals and former president of Universal Television. Speculation among internal candidates has focused on current UTV head Pearlena Igbokwe and her boss, NBCUniversal content studios chairman Bonnie Hammer. Chris McCumber, head of entertainment cable networks including USA and Syfy, had been considered in the running for a larger role. He will now report to Berwick.

That, of course, could change. Another wave of reorganization that will determine who will head various divisions underneath Berwick and the incoming content chief — and bring cost-reducing layoffs — is expected before the end of the month. In the programming unit, new heads of scripted, unscripted, and late-night will be named.

Recently christened NBCU chief executive Jeff Shell teased the promised reorganization and cost savings in consecutive quarterly earning calls, first in May, then in July — leading to a drawn out process that increased anxiety among rank and file in the TV businesses. That’s where cuts had been expected to be concentrated as NBCU looked to streamline its linear TV operation and shift resources to direct-to-consumer.

Such consolidation has become all the rage as the major media companies look to find their place in Netflix’s world. After the acquisition of Fox, the Walt Disney Co. place content for ABC, Freeform, and Hulu as well as oversight over its TV studios in the hands of Dana Walden under Peter Rice. Viacom’s acquisition of CBS led to Chris McCarthy overseeing a programming team responsible for Comedy Central, MTV, Paramount Network, Pop, TV Land and VH1.

That streamlining has obvious cost benefits. Why pay three heads of drama, three heads of marketing, three heads of scheduling, and so forth, when you can get by with one of each? The decline of basic cable paved the way for this thinking. With viewership migrating to streaming and cord cutting tangibly eating away at the cable business, big cable brands such as USA and TNT have been proven to be less valuable than they were a decade ago. Then the dual revenue stream was at the height of its revenue-generating power, with cable in more than 100 million homes. Now there are fewer than 85 million cable subscribers in the U.S., and most basic cable channels are all but incapable of aggregating sufficient eyeballs to justify big-ticket scripted shows.

Berwick’s job going forward will be in good part about windowing — essentially deciding which shows air where and for how long. Expect more programming synergies such as that seen with “Cannonball,” a summer competition series that aired on both NBC and USA. By running a show across multiple linear platforms, programmers can maximize costs.

The effect is that broadcast and cable networks such as NBC and its siblings are likely to increasingly emphasize reality shows that are low-cost and highly repeatable. Such was clear Wednesday when E!, in a move that presaged the next day’s reorg, canceled a bevy of expensive, work-intensive entertainment news shows — including flagship “E! News” — in a cost-cutting move. Insiders told Variety that the network, which just a few years ago had its own scripted ambitions, is likely to now be exclusively a home for reality programming and de-emphasized along with other NBCU cable channels as the bulk of resources remaining in linear go to NBC, USA and Bravo.

While Berwick will be tasked with overseeing spending and maximizing efficiency for cable and broadcast, the creative-executive-to-be-named-later will also get a chance to play in Peacock’s sandbox. That person will follow a path that has already been laid out, and will see the most ambitious scripted projects funneled to streaming service, which continues to be headed by Comcast veteran Matt Strauss, and which represents the company’s future. That much was clear when the service premiered last month, boasting as its standard-bearer original program “Brave New World.” Originally developed by Universal Content Productions for Syfy, it was later moved to USA — and then, finally, to Peacock.

It’s a path that all of TV appears to be on.