News

Prime-time cutbacks will only hurt NBC

Phil Rosenthal
Chicago Tribune

Bill Veeck, the late sage who used to own the Chicago White Sox, always liked to say that it wasn't really baseball's stars that were expensive. "It's the cost of mediocrity that murders you," he said.

It's failure that's costly.

NBC Universal Television Group Chief Executive Jeff Zucker is talking about trying to deploy lower-cost programming rather than traditional dramas and comedies in the 8 p.m. prime-time leadoff slot.

Advertiser interest just doesn't justify the expense, Zucker has said, especially when General Electric's media unit is trying to slash $750 million in annual administrative and operating expenses by the end of 2008, an initiative called NBC Universal 2.0 that was announced Thursday.

What NBC is going through is increasingly common in the media business these days. It reported a nearly 15 percent profit margin on $3.6 billion in revenue for the third quarter, but because the $542 million profit was off 10 percent, it was cast as a drag on General Electric.

"Success in this business means quickly adjusting to and anticipating change," NBC Universal Chairman and Chief Executive Bob Wright said in a statement. "This initiative is designed to help us exploit technology and focus our resources as we continue our transformation into a digital media company for the 21st century."

That's a nice way of stating that while NBC Universal spends money to build up the digital platforms it hopes will produce more than $1 billion in revenue by 2009, it plans to take a hacksaw to costs. This means consolidating some operations and eliminating approximately 700 jobs, or about 5 percent of its global workforce, as well as spending less money in the first hour of prime time.

Of course, when NBC shelled out for "Friends" or "The Cosby Show" or "Golden Girls" - you know, programs people actually watched - scripted shows weren't expensive no matter how many zeroes were on the checks.

It's when you're spending $2.6 million per hour of "Friday Night Lights," a quality drama that's nonetheless averaging only around 6.5 million viewers, to open NBC's Tuesday lineup this fall, that the $1.1 million "Deal or No Deal" looks so good.

The more than 15 million viewers "Deal or No Deal" averages on Mondays looks pretty good, too.

Back when Zucker, then merely head of NBC Entertainment, was upping the renewal fee each year for "Friends" to keep the top-rated comedy on Thursday nights, he justified it by not only the ad revenue it generated. It also kept NBC No. 1 in the ratings and helped the network promote its other programs.

The price eventually extended beyond $9 million per half-hour. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.

You want expensive? How about when NBC paid Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt each $1 million per week to star in "Mad About You" when the fading sitcom was routinely getting pounded by "JAG," a show NBC had discarded?

It's never what you pay. It's what you get for your money, and no matter what Zucker thinks of what advertisers will support at 8 p.m., the 9 p.m. shows are bound to be affected. What's that worth?

Just last year, Zucker himself said the first hour of prime time was crucial because "the ability to launch things (in the second hour and) having them self-start is nearly impossible."

So now he's saying he wants to rein in costs?

"NBC is rebounding and we think it is well-positioned in the fourth quarter of 2006 into 2007," General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt said last week, noting that NBC's ratings were up 15 percent.

But a lot of that is because the network has this fall added National Football League telecasts on Sunday nights, which is costing NBC $3.6 billion, $600 million per year for the next six years.

It's a lot of cash, to be sure. It's not necessarily expensive.

___

What about Bob: ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff, seriously wounded by a roadside bomb blast in Iraq on Jan. 29, will do a special next spring detailing both the incident and his arduous recovery effort, the network announced.

Woodruff's special, through interviews with eyewitnesses and the medical teams that worked to save his life, will also deal with the everyday efforts to save soldiers' lives and how they and their families deal with the aftereffects.

Woodruff and his wife, Lee, also are working on a memoir for Random House on their experiences since the attack in Iraq.

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