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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

In today's episode, Friend of the Blog Paul William Tenny, author of Media Pundit considers how NBC can get its groove back. (Complications Ensue does not necessarily endorse the opinion piece below, but it's food for thought.)

How NBC can get its groove back

By Paul William Tenny

NBC is almost certainly better off today than it was with Ben Silverman helming the network -- which isn't saying much -- but he's not the only exec that needs to go, and NBC is still pretty far from playing on a competitive level with the other networks. A number of mistakes have been made that go much deeper than entertainment direction. Although his new show may end up playing an insignificant role in the network's future, the debacle involving Jay Leno perfectly illustrates how a lack of leadership at NBC has resulted in a network that cares more about not losing than it does winning.

Despite all of that, nobody should be writing them off. And despite what I've written below about what NBC needs to do to get back on top, their biggest obstacle might be getting rid of this perception that they're already ancient history. The more I think about the way people react to this network, the more it reminds me to the way I thought about the Red Sox. Here was a baseball team that was on top of the sport a really long time ago, but hadn't won it all in some 86 years. Then out of nowhere, they were back on top in 2007.

It won't take NBC that long, but the message ought to be pretty clear. Where you are today is not a guarantee of where you're going to be tomorrow.

No amount of effort or good intentions can replace talent. In NBC's case, it's not creative talent that's been lacking these last few years, it's back-to-basics business sense that's been missing.

Here's how to fix it.

Acknowledging The Problem


It's natural to be cautious after getting knocked on your rear. You question your ability to make decisions and begin doubting your ability to accomplish goals. A bad leader will use their failure as an excuse to exhibit a "stop losing ground" mentality. That becomes the ultimate goal. Forget trying to win, you're now obsessed with not losing.

A good leader, on the other hand, will use these tools to find and address their flaws so that they can go back on offense.

This may sound simplistic and not really all that related to NBC's most visible failure: they can't put out any good shows. That's because NBC's problems are fundamental to their business. Putting terrible shows on the air is simply the result of timid business decisions, it has nothing to do with creative drought.

Pardon my hubris as I am not an expert on business management, but one doesn't have to be an expert to identify problems at this level. Ask yourself this, when was the last time that NBC was ever accused of being too aggressive?

The big problem I identified while building a narrative for this story in my mind was the concession that NBC has already lost, and is giving up. Everyone could see that putting Jay Leno on for five nights a week was a step backwards. It doesn't matter if Leno's program makes money, it will never make enough money to enable NBC to take any real risks, and what's worse, it consistently robs the network of a chance to find a breakout hit. And that's the bottom line here. Leno doesn't enable NBC to attack the competition, doesn't get it any closer to third place.

Leno enables NBC to pretend that it's playing a different game than everyone else, and if that's the way they want to do it, fine, but they should quit and find something else to do.

That move was a classic blunder. The only thing Leno's new show is doing -- or trying to do -- is temporarily stop NBC from losing more ground, but it does nothing to gain back anything they've lost. If that mentality is prevailing within NBC's highest levels of management, then everyone needs to be fired. It's not personal or arbitrary, but there's really no getting around it. This is worse than good people making bad decisions or having bad luck, these are people who are fundamentally incompetent. It doesn't matter how hard they try or how badly they want to succeed, it's long past time to recognize that they simply aren't capable of doing their jobs.

A New Game Plan


I've seen the television industry accused of being risk averse in any number of areas and for any number of reasons, some justified, some not. NBC should dismiss a lot of this "conventional wisdom" which often turns out to be completely worthless and wrong. Conventional wisdom once said that year-around schedules wouldn't work, and then cable came along and proved that it can (while neither the networks nor cable have truly embraced year-around programming on their own, together they do cover the entire year proving that there are always people looking for something good to watch.)

Being NBC right now shouldn't be all that hard. You're in last place, so you've got very little to lose. Nobody expects you to succeed so there really shouldn't be any real pressure, either.

Going year-around would satisfy at least two requirements of good leadership:

1. It's an offensive move that will attempt to take advantage of potential weaknesses in the other networks who aren't airing original programming during certain times of the year. Put more simply, when the enemy is standing still, you need to be on the move. If even marginally successful this would mean NBC gaining ground on all of its rivals, something it hasn't put any serious effort into in who knows how long.

2. This will reverse the trend of having less original programming. Leno was a mistake not because NBC execs thought or hoped he would have good ratings or be more profitable -- only to find out that his ratings would sink -- but because it didn't address NBC's problem: no scripted hits. It the end it doesn't matter at all what NBC put on at 10PM, or why. They don't seem to understand what their problems are.

There are surely a lot of problems and circumstances that are unique to the television industry, but it is not so unique that the basic precepts of math and common sense don't apply.

TV and film share something in common: Sturgeon's Law, which states that 90% of everything is crap. If you make 10 movies or 10 TV shows, nine of them are going to suck.

It would therefore follow that in order to make more great movies and TV shows, you have to make more TV shows and movies overall. This logic is stark in its simplicity and surely subject to certain exceptions, but it is sound nonetheless. If NBC wants more successful shows, it needs to start putting more pilots on the air.

Period.

It'll cost them more money but at the end of the day they'll also end up with more successful shows.

I covered the upfronts for the first time a couple of years ago and was shocked at just how few new shows each network puts on the air each year. I don't think any network had more than four in any genre, and some genres only had a single show. I seem to remember NBC having the fewest, which made sense. They've become so risk averse that they'd probably rather not put any new shows on the air at all. It's seems eerily similar to the results of domestic abuse.

It will cost a lot of money -- money that GE and NBC's possible new parent Comcast can undoubtedly afford -- and everyone except myself will call them crazy, but NBC needs to come out of the upfronts with enough programming to cover the entire year. They need to put triple the number of pilots on the air than anyone else, do whatever it takes to give themselves a reasonable shot at gaining ground. If that means pulling Leno off the air while still paying out the rest of his contract, so be it. It happens every single year in sports.

If that means putting programming on the weekends again, so be it. Whatever they do can't possibly perform worse than a musical tribute to ice skating, which was on a weekend or two ago.

I'm not kidding.

There's been talk of expanding the NBC Nightly News to a full hour. It beats every other evening news program in the ratings, so why not build on a winner? If it gains against the competition in the ratings by even a point, then mission accomplished. Small steps add up.

There are any number of greater risks that NBC could and probably should start taking. The accountants may tell you that it makes more sense to only order eight or nine episodes from a new series, so that you can cut it lose before building up a lot of debt if it's not working out, but by definition the only thing accountants will tell you is how to save money. They can't tell you how to run your business successfully and can't tell you how to make money. Making money means taking risks, and executing risks safely via mitigation takes skill and experience that accountants don't have -- and sadly neither does the current crop of NBC execs.

The only network experimenting with full season orders right off the bat is FOX, and their experiments could be fairly described as halfhearted at best. Although the economies of scale are different, I've never heard of a cable network going out of business because they ordered a full season from a new series, and a ton of them are already doing that. With little to lose and no one else really looking at that territory, it seems ripe for NBC to give it an honest try.

The benefits seem apparent. Audiences should be more apt to stick with a show they know is going to be around by next spring. The creative talent should theoretically perform better under less pressure, and by default will not have to unnaturally structure their series to be front-loaded with crap that will excite the network execs but just freak out the audience. The value of those two benefits are far too often underestimated. A show that sticks around for a full season, even if it's only mediocre, is still keeping eyeballs on your network instead of someone else's.

Again, small steps. How can you gain viewers when you can't even figure out how to keep the ones you've already got?

Incentives


Sports teams love to cannibalize talent from their opponents. It's a zero sum game; their loss is your gain. NBC should do the same as ruthlessly as possible. If you're a hot shot exec-prod who has a good relationship with FOX and offers on the table for more action, why would you ever leave for a loser like NBC?

If you're NBC, the answer is that you're going to start giving people things that nobody else will. Start offering hot talent working for your competitors higher residuals. Offer full season orders. Promise -- and mean it -- that you won't syndicate their shows to a sibling cable network below market value. Don't preempt their shows or dump them in death slots. Don't change their time slot. Since you're putting more pilots on the air you can give these people something that FOX can't: airtime. If they stay with FOX they might get one pilot on the air this fall. If they come to NBC, you'll give them two, and maybe one on USA as well.

Swallow your pride and give people what they want so that they'll come to your side and give you the next CSI instead of the next Trauma.

Some of these things will cost the network money but they'll also serve as investments that should pay back everything they cost and more. So what, you'll make a little less on having the next CSI than such a show makes for its network/studio elsewhere (because you stopped being greedy on residuals), but at least you'll have the next CSI. And you'll have potentially taken that show from your rivals, to boot.

Promotion


I read somewhere (and ended up writing about this some time ago) that USA Network was more profitable for NBC-U than NBC was. Although this probably would better fall under "game plan", perhaps USA would be a good place to start mining for talent to replace all the execs at NBC that need to go. And while they're at it, it wouldn't hurt to try promoting some of USA's most successful shows (and perhaps SyFy?) to NBC to see how they do (or at least the talent behind them.)

NBC seemed pretty desperate to build a theme for Monday nights for a while, I can't think of a better fit right now for what they've got on Monday's than Stargate Universe, or Warehouse 13 which is doing very well for them. Maybe it's time that NBC and the other networks started using cable as a form of minor leagues from which they can mine shows and talent both on the creative and executive level.

It also wouldn't hurt if they hooked up with Joss Whedon, if not just so that we can stop watching him get repeatedly murdered by FOX.


Check out the feisty discussion in the comments!

If you're interested in guest-blogging, drop me a line.

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14 Comments:

Trauma's actually quite good. Sometimes people don't watch shows not because they're not good but just because they wouldn't know good television if it nailed itself to their corneas. I think we all know that.

By Blogger Little Miss Nomad, at 3:47 PM  

Great suggestions, especially the one about a year-round schedule.

Couldn't help but think these ideas should be applied to Canadian broadcasters as well.

By Blogger Nick, at 4:16 PM  

Really interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

Rather than higher residuals (which I sincerely doubt would ever happen, since it sets a precedent), perhaps NBC could offer what makes cable attractive to many TV veterans: less network interference. Give a select group of really talented EPs room to make the shows they want. Many talented writers would like to work at broadcast networks, but the endless notes calls and micro-managing makes it a miserable experience.

If NBC could somehow offer the benefits of cable along with the benefits of broadcast (bigger budgets, more viewers), writers would respond to that. Maybe hire some cable execs and let them spearhead a subunit within the network entertainment division.

That may be a pipe dream.

Still, stealing talent from competitors might not be the best strategy. It'll cost NBC and we all know that even highly-regarded EPs can make flops (Studio 60 comes to mind).

They should groom their own young talent. Order more pilots from young, fresh voices. Pair them with experienced showrunners, sure, but put something different on the air. The most successful (non-spinoff) shows this season are distinct (Glee, Vampire Diaries, etc). Those are from TV veterans, but NBC has nothing to lose; they should be finding the next Shonda.

By Blogger kimshum, at 8:45 PM  

Thanks again Alex, for posting this.

@kimshum: "Still, stealing talent from competitors might not be the best strategy. It'll cost NBC and we all know that even highly-regarded EPs can make flops (Studio 60 comes to mind)."

Cost them what though? I'm not sure what NBC has left to lose, which is why I think extreme risk taking should be on the table right now.

They've already got plenty of people both talented and untalented making flops for them, so more flops isn't going to help or hurt them substantively.

NBC is a desperate network with nothing more to lose, and they should start acting like it IMHO.

Anyhoo, thanks for the comments one and all.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 9:40 PM  

@Paul, I agree in principle. My thinking was NBC would have to spend more money to steal competitors' talent (and pay them a lot in guarantees, higher fees, etc) than to grow their own young talent (who wouldn't have high quotes).

Granted it's not an either/or situation and if they've committed to investing the needed money, then they should really go for it. Extreme risk-taking should be on the table, including all your suggestions and more. But I'm skeptical.

By Blogger kimshum, at 10:11 PM  

30 Rock? Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live impersonating Sarah Palin? Amy Poehler? The Office? NBC's comedy programming is an Emmy powerhouse.

By Blogger Lisa, at 10:58 PM  

@Lisa

I don't deny that NBC has a well liked comedy lineup, but Emmys don't translate into ratings and won't bring NBC back to a competitive state.

They are 4th at 8pm (Community) and 4th at 8:30 (Parks & Rec), 2nd (crushed by Grey's) with The Office at 9, 3rd at 9:30 with 30 Rock (crushed by Grey's and CSI), and 3rd at 10 with Leno (crushed by Private Practice and Mentalist).

The Thursday I got these numbers from has NBC tied with FOX for 4th in 18-49, 3rd in 18-34, and 4th in overall viewers. And that's with 2/3 the shows you mentioned.

Compare that to what the leaders are doing. Big Bang Theory has gained viewers year-over-year and has worked its way into the top 20 (17th) overall, with 14 million viewers average.

If I could keep adding to my list of things NBC should think about doing, dumping 30 Rock would have to bo on that list. Personally I love it, but look at what it's up against at 9:30:

Grey's Anatomy (ABC): 14.3m
CSI (CBS): 15m
30 Rock (NBC): 5.8m
Fringe (FOX): 5.7m

That's sorted by 18-49, where Grey's handily beats CSI.

And I'm reading rumors now that Comcast wants to dump every scripted show on NBC's schedule except SVU, 30 Rock, and The Office. All three shows lose their time slot and only one is ever higher than third place.

It sounds mercenary but you can't cling to shows regularly losing their time slot when basically all of your shows do.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 11:27 PM  

Dump 30 Rock??? You sound like the bean counters you criticize. It gets a highly desirable demographic, and networks need "prestige" projects that win awards to convince creators to bring shows to their network.

Putting Leno on at 10 was a vile idea, but the NBC comedy programmers are on the ball.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 11:36 PM  

P.S. The shows that "crush" the comedies are all cop and doctor shows. Surely that's not what you mean by innovative drama.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 11:38 PM  

@Lisa: "Dump 30 Rock??? You sound like the bean counters you criticize."

Perhaps, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.

"It gets a highly desirable demographic.."

Ken Levine wrote a really funny post "Decoding Hollywoodspeak". For demos, he's got:

“We’re pleased with the demographics” – the ratings are shit

It's funny precisely because it's true. 30 Rock does decent in the demo, but it's third in the demo as well as third overall in its time slot. That's not good enough.

I've been down this road before, made the same argument in favor of keeping Heroes around (before it fell this far.) But that was me making a case for keeping that one show around. My guest post is me making a case for revamping an entire network to bring it back into competition.

For the latter you've got to be willing to dump shows like 30 Rock or move them into less competitive time slots, at the very least.

The simple and sad fact is that the longer NBC keeps shows like 30 Rock around, the less opportunity it has to find a better performing programming like Big Bang Theory. The schedule is finite even if they did go year-around.

On any other network you might could make a solid case for keeping a show like 30 Rock around, because for them it's more icing on the cake than anything. But not NBC, they are too desperate and too far behind to be rationalizing like that.

"..and networks need "prestige" projects that win awards to convince creators to bring shows to their network."

I'm not deep enough into the industry to say anything about this authoritatively, but I'm guessing that anyone would come to NBC if NBC gave them a show. That's the goal here, right? Run a show. Doesn't matter where, just keep working your butt off until you've got your own show. That's part of the strategy I outlined above. Create opportunities for more shows and use those openings to bring in successful talent from other places that may want more on their plate.

J. J. Abrams seems to be everywhere these days and he's got a new show on NBC at some point, I've read. That's a great start, but they need to do more of that, not less.

"Putting Leno on at 10 was a vile idea, but the NBC comedy programmers are on the ball. "

I'm not saying that NBC's execs don't have an eye for good comedy – they very clearly do (even though the guy who brought The Office to the network isn't even working there anymore). I'm largely saying that the network's problems are far more fundamental than programming choices. 30 Rock and The Office are good, but NBC doesn't need good, they need great. A large part of that is putting more pilots on the air and widening the talent pool, and if necessary -- and I think that it is -- wiping out a lot of what's already on the air.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 12:14 AM  

Creators of "great" shows have a choice of networks these days, and canceling shows like 30 Rock -- which are highly, highly regarded in the writing community -- wouldn't look very writer-friendly.

(Most Oscar winning Best Pictures aren't cash cows either, but they're very important for studio branding and for convincing the top talent to get on board.)

And it's not all about money. Most writers I know dream of having an HBO show -- not because of the pay package, but because the broadcaster is known for letting creative people have wide leeway. THAT's what draws the most innovative ideas.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 9:17 AM  

@Lisa: "Creators of "great" shows have a choice of networks these days, and canceling shows like 30 Rock -- which are highly, highly regarded in the writing community -- wouldn't look very writer-friendly."

I get what you're saying, I just don't think that trumps pragmatism. I'm sure that all show runners also understand that 30 Rock probably doesn't survive this long on any other broadcast network. Canceling it wouldn't be an aberration, it'd be the sign of a network that balances creative entertainment against running a successful business.

And lets not forget that both 30 Rock and The Office are getting more expensive by the season. These aren't youngins, here. 30 Rock is in its fourth season and The Office its sixth. Even if NBC was perfectly happy with their ratings today, they are still going to go off the air in a couple of years simply because they'll cost too much. That's a price these shows pay for not having bullet proof ratings like CSI or Big Bang does. They have zero margin for error.

The end result is the same, regardless.

"(Most Oscar winning Best Pictures aren't cash cows either, but they're very important for studio branding and for convincing the top talent to get on board.)"

I'm all for award-bait flicks, but no studio can survive off them and nothing else. The Weinstein Company is essentially the feature equivalent of NBC these days.

NBC just got sold and TWC is for all practical purposes insolvent, and these are but some of the many reasons why.

By Blogger Paul William Tenny, at 9:34 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger haytham, at 5:00 PM  

In my opinion, the single biggest challenge to great programming is the assumption that networks should be looking for "the next CSI." That's why we have an endless supply of cop and doctor shows that feel like every other one on TV. Networks seem to think that's all anyone wants to watch, and that's why the audience is abandoning them for cable. Few people will watch more than one favorite cop show or one favorite doctor show, and yet crime/medical procedurals are programmed wall-to-wall in prime time.

KINGS was a failure, but at least NBC was trying to break out of the mold.

By Blogger Lisa Hunter, at 4:00 PM  

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