NBC's Challenges Extend Around the Clock

Tuning In: Peacock Tries to Stabilize Its Morning, Late-Night Pillars

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NBC is fast becoming the inverse TV network.

At its rivals CBS, ABC and Fox, the public emphasis remains largely on prime-time. (Fox doesn't even program daytime or most of late night.) But NBC has lately seemed to be paying more attention to "Today" and "The Tonight Show" than its prime-time schedule.

Betty White and Jay Leno on 'The Tonight Show.'
Betty White and Jay Leno on 'The Tonight Show.'

That may not be the actual case, of course. Prime-time is the lifeblood of nearly every TV network, NBC included, and for all the problems it's had with the time period over the years, NBC has taken steps under Comcast to stabilize its programming at 8, 9 and 10 p.m.

This summer, however, the network is getting headlines about efforts to shore up other parts of the lineup -- with good reason. Jay Leno still rules late night, but that time slot has been so sliced and diced over the years by everyone ranging from Chelsea Handler to Jon Stewart to Jimmy Kimmel to Adult Swim that his margin of victory is slimmer, and his demographic older, than it might have been in decades past. ABC's "Good Morning America," meanwhile, has been shoulder-charging NBC's long-dominant "Today" in past weeks. And the departures of three popular cast members of "Saturday Night Live" won't help matters on the weekend.

Protecting the status quo in the morning and following the late local news is paramount for the Peacock. For decades, no matter how NBC was doing in prime-time, "Today" and "Tonight" have been pillars, bringing in a steady stream of ad revenue while posing fewer day-to-day challenges. (Remember when the cast of "Friends" successfully held out for $1 million per episode to do a final season?)

Now those morning and nighttime pillars are wobbling a bit more than NBC would like, especially when prime-time is such a struggle. A network's early and late programming is actually considered a crucial weapon in promoting prime-time. If the audience for "Today" becomes less reliable, so too does the network's ability to funnel those crowds to the crucial prime-time hours. If the cost of "Tonight" is heavy, meanwhile, NBC is more likely to feel that burden than a network that 's No. 1 in prime-time.

No wonder, then, that NBC has moved decisively to keep "Today" host Matt Lauer under contract; to dispose of Ann Curry as a "Today" co-host more rapidly than it did Deborah Norville in 1991; and, most recently, to trim spending at Jay Leno's "Tonight" show. Reports said Mr. Leno's budget had bloomed when NBC tried installing him in prime-time and was never trimmed back when he returned to late-night, which which calls the accounting scrutiny from parent NBC Universal into question, if not comic relief.

Simply put, NBC can't have a shaky prime-time schedule and a shaky support system at the same time. While the success of "The Voice" and the fate of new fall programs such as "Animal Practice" and "The Revolution" may take over the headlines in a few weeks, don't doubt that NBC is probably spending more time on its less-glitzy programming than it once felt necessary.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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