Critics say reality, game shows at 8 p.m. show NBC's given up

Posted: October 21, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Just 10 months after promising to stick with an "A-level product," NBC Universal made a U-turn Thursday by announcing plans to replace its first hour of prime-time programming with game shows and reality TV.

Jeff Zucker, head of NBC-Universal Television, announced deep staff cuts and a strategy that directly affects the development of comedy and drama series.

"It's an alarming message to send out: 'We're throwing our hands up in the air; we don't know what to do any more,' " lamented Marc Berman, Mediaweek ratings analyst.

"There's nothing wrong with a game show here or there - 'Deal or No Deal' works on Monday and Friday nights. But to say this is what we're doing from now on sends an extremely alarming message: 'Our priority isn't finding quality shows, it's about programming that's costing us less.' You never, ever send that message out. When the viewer gets a taste of that, it sends out a very bad message."

"You can practically see the carnage," said Robert Thompson of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television.

In January, however, NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly insisted that neither the network's financial slump nor its acquisition of "Sunday Night Football" would affect its development of scripted programming.

"We can't afford to get that cute right now," Reilly declared. "We need A-level product on the air."

Thompson does believe that NBC is making a grave error in ceding its 8 p.m. hour of prime time to unscripted programming.

"Putting all your eggs in game shows and reality at 8 o'clock is a very dangerous thing to do," he said. "It's fine if you can get 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' or 'Deal or No Deal.' But they wear out quickly, and for every 'Millionaire,' there are three 'Winning Lines,' '21s' and 'Greeds' that don't work. It's an easy decision to make but much harder to execute."

Still, Thompson didn't find the layoffs particularly alarming, noting, "This is a network that has been around since 1927, when broadcasting was in its infancy, when it was a radio network. Lots of layers of inefficient bureaucracy have no doubt built up since then. It probably needs a little paring down."

Earle Marsh, co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows," believes the strategy is pragmatic.

"Reality shows tend to be cheaper to produce, and they do attract the younger audience that networks are chasing," he said. "But they don't have legs - one problem you run into is, you can't rerun them effectively. They're once [aired] and out. From a production company's point of view, that's a real problem."

Zucker told the Wall Street Journal that advertisers weren't interested in the 8 p.m. hour. But the fall season's biggest new hit series, ABC's "Ugly Betty," is an 8 o'clock show Thursdays.

Likewise, NBC's decision to slash its news division's budget through bureau closures and layoffs of on-air reporters was met with negative reviews, particularly given that "The NBC Nightly News" and "Today" are among the network's few success stories, No. 1 in their time slots.

"Making cuts in the news creates risks to the one place they still have dominance," Thompson said.

"A great percentage of their revenue comes from 'Today' and 'Nightly News,' " echoed Berman. "Don't take something that's working and dilute it." *

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