Comcast hopes fall schedule revives NBC's image

TV host Chelsea Handler : One of the pilots NBC is considering is a comedy about her early career.
TV host Chelsea Handler : One of the pilots NBC is considering is a comedy about her early career.
Posted: April 24, 2011

When Comcast put up $13.8 billion to take control of NBCUniversal in January, it got theme parks that are tons of fun, studios that can produce hit movies, cable networks like USA and Bravo that spew money out the bottom line.

And a big, heavy ball and chain that weighs the deal down: the worst prime-time lineup on network television, the perennial loser that is NBC.

Comcast is intent on turning that weight into a helium balloon. Three weeks from Monday, it will make its first major move, with the presentation to potential advertisers of its fall schedule.

The company has hired one of the most-respected programmers in Hollywood, and he is overseeing a wide-ranging, $100 million lineup of pilots for new scripted shows, including a musical from Steven Spielberg, a remake of the British detective series Prime Suspect starring Maria Bello, and a comedy about the early career of ribald talk-show host Chelsea Handler.

"Right now, what we're trying to do is find great ideas," said Steve Burke, president and chief executive officer of NBCU and former chief operating officer of Comcast Corp. Burke, who is meeting with talent agents and reading scripts, added, "I don't think there is a filter that says, 'This is an NBC show.' "

It's conceivable that the network, in such a shambles, could put on a new face by picking up more than half its 26 scripted pilots, about twice the normal slate of new shows.

"NBC this pilot season seems about being bold, making real bets on things that feel loud and don't feel so conventional," said Zack Van Amburg, one of two presidents of programming and production for Sony Pictures Television.

Comcast has two reasons to try to drag the network out of last place. The first is financial. It's true that NBC is only a small fraction of the NBCUniversal portfolio that Comcast bought from General Electric. The network has revenue of $3.3 billion a year, compared with the combined Comcast-NBCU revenue of $54 billion.

But the TV network is losing money - $500 million a year, mostly from prime time, people with knowledge of its finances estimate. In addition, a weak prime-time audience hurts viewership for the 11 p.m. news, a big moneymaker for local affiliates.

Just as important is image. Although Jeff Zucker, the previous NBCUniversal chief executive, diversified the company into profitable cable channels and maintained the network's leading and lucrative positions in the morning, news, and late night, his failure to pull NBC's prime-time ratings out of their tailspin largely defined his career.

Image will be more than personal at Comcast, seen first and foremost as a TV company, than it was at G.E., known for lightbulbs and refrigerators.

"NBC's prime-time lineup is its public face," said Craig Moffett, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein. "Comcast won't get full credit for its purchase until the Peacock climbs out of the cellar."

The cellar, where NBC has lived for more consecutive years than any network in TV's cyclical history, has been dank and filled with cobwebs.

The last time the network had a scripted show among TV's top 20 was in 2005-06, when Law & Order: Special Victims Unit tied for 18th.

The last time the network introduced what could charitably be labeled a scripted hit was in 1998. Jesse, a sitcom starring Christina Applegate, succeeded almost exclusively because it was comfortably ensconced on the network's must-see-TV Thursdays alongside the huge successes Friends, Frasier, and ER, the top three shows on television. (Applegate could be back on NBC in the fall. She stars in a much-buzzed-about pilot from Saturday Night Live boss Lorne Michaels.)

Thursdays now at NBC are filled with comedies loved by critics but not by many viewers, and NBC's highest-rated scripted show this season, newcomer Harry's Law, is not No. 1, 2, or 3, but No. 24. With Sunday Night Football its only ratings winner, the network that used Jay Leno to knock five hours of drama off its weekly schedule has not been extracting huzzahs from the Hollywood people who produce TV shows.

That's changing.

Comcast, which closed on the deal for NBCUniversal in January, acquired 51 percent control of the entertainment and news company valued at $30 billion, and is expected to buy the rest of NBCU over the next seven years.

For the post of NBCU president and CEO, Comcast installed Burke, a former Disney executive. He grew up in television as the son of onetime ABC boss Dan Burke, who headed station-group owner Capital Cities Communications before it acquired the then-troubled network in 1985.

NBC's Burke, in turn, lured Bob Greenblatt from Showtime and made him programming president. Greenblatt oversaw Showtime's move from perennial also-ran to genuine challenger to HBO, installing an eclectic mix of series such as The Tudors, Weeds, Dexter, and The United States of Tara.

Involved with such shows as Ally McBeal, The X-Files, and King of the Hill, Greenblatt helped to establish the Fox network brand in the '90s before starting his own production company, which produced series such as Six Feet Under and The Hughleys.

Burke and Comcast hope Greenblatt can go three-for-three after Fox and Showtime and reestablish NBC's identity.

"We will try very new things," Burke said. "We will be as innovative as any network, and that is what you have to do when you're in fourth place."

NBC has commissioned 10 drama pilots, second only to ABC's 14, and 12 comedy pilots, the most of any network.

"It's really an eclectic mix," said Sony's Van Amburg. "It's hard to know where we will fit, and the other studios feel that way, too."

Significantly, 16 of the series are not produced by NBC's studio sister, Universal. Contrast that with CBS, ABC, and Fox, where more than half the pilots are produced in-house.

Burke said he believed hiring Greenblatt signaled to the Hollywood community that NBC appreciated good programming, and interviews with several producers indicate he was right.

"Bob Greenblatt is the kind of person that producers, actors, and writers are going to want to work with," said Kari Lizer, executive producer of The New Adventures of Old Christine, who is making a sitcom pilot for NBC. "He brings a lot to the table, and they trust him. They trust his taste."

"From my end of things," she said without naming names, "it's hard to deal with people who have no idea of how to deal with the process, or that there is a process. Bob understands the process."

"Bob comes with the mind-set to let the creative determine what the model is," said Van Amburg, whose company is producing two comedy pilots for the network. "It's almost a 180-degree shift from the old NBC, which loudly touted the reinvention of the model with advertiser outreach and cost cutting."

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen, in a recent luncheon speech to a Philadelphia business group, the Center City Proprietors Association, didn't pull any punches describing the depth of the problems at NBC prime time.

"There are many nights in many cities where NBC prime ranks in seventh place," he said, behind three or four cable networks.

But, like Burke, who said he was seeking incremental, not instant, success, Cohen was optimistic. " 'It's hard to make worse choices than those that were already made,' " he said, quoting Greenblatt.

"Stay tuned."


NBC's Potential Fall Shows

NBC will choose from 26 scripted pilots for its new shows next season. Among them:

Smash. A musical drama produced by Steven Spielberg, starring Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston, about the making of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe.

Wonder Woman. Adrianne Palicki stars

in David E. Kelley's interpretation of the

comic book tale.

17th Precinct. A sci-fi detective show set in a magical city, starring Smallville's Kristin Kreuk.

The Crossing. Mayhem in a small Missouri town after the Civil War.

A Mann's World. Don Johnson plays an aging heterosexual struggling to keep his edge as a Beverly Hills hairdresser.

Brave New World. Teen takes job at Pilgrim Village, a living-history museum. Laughs ensue. Stars Ed Begley Jr. and Robby Benson.

Bent. Amanda Peet is a divorcée who hires ladies' man David Walton, a recovering gambling addict, to renovate her kitchen. Sparks ensue.

My Life as an Experiment. Immersion journalist Jon Dore seeks insight by posing for a nude photo shoot or living by the Bible's rules. Also stars Donald Sutherland and Paget Brewster.


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

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