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Posted by: Ron Grover on January 10, 2010
Announcements don’t get much more dramatic than the one NBC made today about yanking The Jay Leno show from its 10 o’clock time period just three months after the former host of The Tonight Show began his one-hour comedy, skit show.
Yes, NBC TV honcho Jeff Gaspin told an overflow gathering of reporters on Sunday’s TV Critics Tour in Pasadena, Calif., NBC’s 200-odd affiliates had forced the change because prime time ratings tanked. The reason? Their 11 pm news programs, a nice little profit center for most stations, was suddenly hemorrhaging through no fault of their own.
But what Gaspin didn’t say – at least not so boldly – was that NBC had also made an abrupt u-turn on its plans to remake a broken business model for making TV shows. Prime time pilots are made for $10 million, shows for $3 million or so, and viewing audiences are going south. Gaspin’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker, had made the fateful decision to bring in Leno, and to shuttle Law and Order and other 10 pm shows out of their time slots, by arguing that ratings would go down but so would costs.
So much for that idea. Coupled with the announcement that Leno was taking his $500,000 a week show off the air at 10 pm., was the announcement that NBC was going back to the good old ways that networks have always operated. Namely, big producers, big stars, and cross your fingers the shows work. How about these for some biggies to whom NBC said it is throwing its bucks the next few weeks in hopes of finding TV lightning in a bottle – Jerry Bruckheimer, David E. Kelly and J.J. Abrams, who will direct a pilot called “Undercovers” about CIA agents. The last time Abrams directed a pilot, it only cost $13 million.
Of course, that pilot was Lost, which was an immediate and big (although not terribly long lasting) hit on ABC. Clearly, that’s what NBC is hoping Abrams will bring to NBC as well. Then again, they’re hoping the same thing for a remake of “The Rockford Files” that they’ve also ordered for what’s going to be a pricey sum. We all know how their last retread effort — i.e. “Knight Rider” — turned out.
So, I clearly don’t have much hope that NBC will find a week’s worth out of well-priced shows from this crop of pilots, which will be ready for September 2010. I do know that the meter is running and the costs are rising just as tight-fisted cable operator Comcast is going through the federal regulatory process to take over a 51% stake. Imagine the teeth gnashing.
So, here’s an easy solution to NBC’s 10 pm problem that maybe, just maybe, might help Gaspin and Co. find a new economic model for a network TV. How about taking one of the hit shows from its sister cable channel, Bravo, and run them at 10 pm? Anyone who has ever seen Housewives of New York or Millionaire Matchmaker knows that these shows are addicting, and would find an audience maybe twice as big as the Leno yuckfest got for about the same price.
At the Pasadena critics presentation, NBC's prime time president, Angela Bromstad, was asked why not go fishing in Bravo’s waters. “Bravo has its own identify,” she said, as if that should suffice.
It did for that audience. But you have to wonder how all of this is playing with Comcast, which can only watch helplessly as NBC’s prime time seems to be headed for a costly crash dive. And the costs won’t just be going up for prime time. Costs for the late night shows, will also soar if both Leno and Conan O’Brien bring their outsized salaries to the after-news time slot.
Hey, not to worry. NBC will have it all figured out by the time they have present their new crop of shows to advertisers next September. They’re doing that in a big lavish presentation at Radio City Music Hall. Gaspin announced that NBC was bringing back that flashy presentation, too.
The media, entertainment and marketing worlds continue to shapeshift on a near-daily basis, as new forms arise and old assumptions erode. Where is it all going? No one really knows. But on this blog BusinessWeek’s media writers Tom Lowry and Ron Grover promise to provide ample helpings of scoop, provocation, and sharp analysis as they track and annotate this constantly changing terrain.