How Much Does an NBC Turnaround Even Matter Any More?

Tuning In: By the Time Comcast Gets Things Right, Broadcast's Prime Roost Won't Be the Same

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Host Brian Williams with guest Jon Stewart on Monday's debut of 'Rock Center.'
Host Brian Williams with guest Jon Stewart on Monday's debut of 'Rock Center.' Credit: NBC

Imagine switching your TV set to NBC and finding nothing there but static. Would you be surprised? More important, would you care?

More evidence is accumulating to suggest America would not be completely bereft if a certain multi-colored Peacock ceased to hold forth on the TV screen.

When NBC's new news magazine "Rock Center with Brian Williams" made its debut earlier this week, network hopes probably weren't too high. TV news shows cost significantly less than high-quality dramas but usually win smaller audiences too -- which is why most members of this TV club, like "Dateline" or "48 Hours Mystery," tend to air on less important Friday and Saturday nights. But "Rock Center" drew just 4.14 million viewers overall and 1.28 million viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, both measures somewhat less than "The Playboy Club" got in the same slot before it was canceled for weak ratings . The lower expenses make the equation more favorable to "Rock Center," but that still wasn't the performance executives wanted.

That's just the latest bit of lackluster news from NBC, which hasn't had much to crow about in the last several years. Its overall ratings have continued to slide. This season it has canceled both "Playboy Club" and a sitcom, "Free Agents." One of the network's bright spots, gritty Thursday-night police drama "Prime Suspect," is limping along despite the credentials of its star, Maria Bello. The situation has degenerated to such a degree that the cost of an ad in the most expensive program for advertisers on the CW -- Wednesday night's "America's Next Top Model," which costs an average of $61,315 for a 30-second spot -- has nearly caught up with one of NBC's cheapest programs, Wednesday's "Harry's Law," which commands an average of $64,017.

That's the inevitable fallout from a network that has had a succession of failed entertainment chiefs, flopped programs, and disastrous programming gambits. (The decision to put Jay Leno in prime time five nights a week significantly eroded NBC's market position.) Once the king of TV, NBC has lost its crown and, worse, its sense of how to retake it.

And the longer it takes the Peacock to unruffle its feathers, the more precarious the network's position becomes. NBC's turnaround efforts have been going on for years, encompassing everything from the demise of "Friends" and "Frasier" to a remake of "The Bionic Woman" to GM's large in-program appearance in the quickly-canceled "My Own Worst Enemy" to its ill-fated Leno experiment. Now the "Law & Order" franchise has all but dissipated, and the star of "The Office" has left the show.

All the while, the media world continues to fragment, and viewers are increasingly being drawn to clever, critically-acclaimed programming on cable networks. For every "Prime Suspect" that fails to gain an audience quickly there's a "Justified" on FX or "Southland" on TNT nimbly making up for a reduction in viewers with fewer episodes, cost controls on production and subscriber fees. More importantly, there are cable networks increasingly approaching broadcast-like ratings . Last month USA -- NBC's cable sibling within NBC Universal -- beat NBC in the ratings over an entire fall-season evening (as opposed to a summer night or in a single time slot).

Don't get us wrong. A weakened NBC is a victory for no one. It's one of just five free, over-the-air broadcast networks -- part of an elite club that can reach millions upon millions of viewers in one fell swoop -- and one of just three that broadcast original content for three hours in prime time, not to mention its original programming during the day and in late-night. Besides, the network is fused to the spine of this nation's pop-culture history

Yet as NBC works to get its house in order, audiences may soon swoon over programming from even newer sources. Netflix has ordered its first original series, "House of Cards," while YouTube is seeding 100 professionally-produced video channels that will use shorter clips to fight for eyeballs. And other laggard TV performers are finding new ways to shore up their finances, as the tiny CW network has done by crafting distribution pacts with Netflix and Hulu.

In recent remarks to investors, newly-christened NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke suggested a turnaround at the network could take several years. By the end of that timeframe, who's to say what the quickly shifting media landscape will look like? The current generation of young TV viewers, the kind advertisers covet, don't remember a three-network oligarchy and have no loyalty to old notions about the Big Three's prestige. Some of those viewers are just as happy to watch a YouTube video of a cat eating Cheetos posted by a 5-year-old in Wichita, Kan.

Comcast's incentive to restore NBC to its prior glory may wane over time, too.

NBC Universal's revenue growth during the first nine months owes mostly to its cable channels and theme parks, Comcast said in its third-quarter report today. Its broadcast TV revenue, meantime, has fallen 8.4% in the same time period.

With USA, SyFy, Bravo, MSNBC and so many other cable channels, how worried does Comcast need to be about the fortunes of NBC?

Sure, a boost to NBC would generate more revenue and could be used as the linchpin for bigger ad deals across NBCU. Yes, the network for better or worse is still the best-known part of the company -- and the most scrutinized. But the longer it takes the company to straighten NBC out, the more time a new cadre of tech-savvy viewers has to find other sources of entertainment. Comcast may not have as much time as Mr. Burke suggested was necessary to get its venerable broadcast network back in the fight.

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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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