As the peacock wobbles, NBC must work now to repair its damaged brand

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"Brand" is a wearisome, overused corporate-speak term, a word TV executives lean on while speaking at podiums as if vague marketing concepts actually matter more than their company's bottom line.

But if you think of a brand as a network's reputation, then sometimes it does matter. If your network's reputation is lousy programming, it becomes tougher to sway top talent to bring projects to your network, tougher to persuade viewers to watch your latest shows, and even your returning hits can seem tainted.

Last year, CBS unveiled "Viva Laughlin," "Kid Nation," "Moonlight" and "Cane"; all failed. But the efforts were considered noble failures (if there is such a thing in Hollywood). CBS went for different, and different didn't work. The industry began to whisper that CBS was in trouble, yet the network kept its chin up and rebounded this fall.

NBC recently has flopped with programs that one of its top executives said would help viewers "tune in and then mentally tune out." Critics responded with derision, and the level of disrespect and vitriol directed toward the programming by viewers has climbed to an intense level. All broadcasters have problems, but only NBC has this particular problem: a damaged brand.

The network's misfires have been accused of having most of the same faults: poor writing, clunky acting, cheap-looking productions and intrusive product placement. Some of the criticisms echo complaints that began this year with such reality shows as "American Gladiators," "Celebrity Circus" and "My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad," then carried over to NBC's scripted debuts in the fall.

There is no easy narrative when each of your network's shows does not succeed for different reasons. But if each gets knocked on the same grounds, those content criticisms effectively become your new reputation, your brand. Some viewers will be less likely to give midseason series "Kings" a try after watching "Knight Rider," "My Own Worst Enemy" and "Crusoe."

The creative complaints also extend to the returning series "Heroes." Rehiring "Pushing Daisies" creator Bryan Fuller is a terrific move, but in this case taking a fresh stab at quality might not matter. The third season of ABC's "Lost" was creatively disappointing, and fans fled; Season 4 was much improved, yet ratings continued to erode. If "Lost" can't win back fans after pulling off a creative recovery — and even taking the unprecedented step of setting a series-conclusion date — how will the similarly serialized "Heroes" pull it off? Fairly or not, the ratings of such shows tend to fall through trap doors.

What's odd about all this is NBC co-chair Ben Silverman's pre-NBC résumé. People forget: He executive produces NBC's "The Office," ABC's "Ugly Betty" and Showtime's "The Tudors." All are original, clever and successfully reinvented their genres. To whatever extent he was responsible for their creative success — and to whatever extent he is responsible for NBC's lack of success — his pre-NBC titles are worth remembering because they seem like projects descended from an opposing creative sensibility one hopes can still make its mark on the slate.

NBC's most urgent problem remains a lack of quality inventory. Viewers should line up for "Celebrity Apprentice" midseason, but shifting it back to Sunday night and expanding it to two hours is pushing your luck — like trying to stretch a triple into an inside-the-park home run.

Enter Jay Leno's 10 p.m. takeover next fall. Broadcast dramas indeed increasingly look like playing the lottery instead of reliable business models, but the old Lotto slogan fits either way: "If you don't play, you can't win." For decades, the broadcast jackpot has been a veteran scripted series dying and going to syndication heaven. For NBC and its studio, stripping a weeknight talk show as if they've entered the syndication business themselves will save a few dollars in grocery money at the end of each week but will have less chance of winning a big prize.

It would be easier to embrace the Leno move were it not for CBS' breakout "The Mentalist," which during a recent week was TV's most-watched show. Finding new broadcast TV hits is tougher than ever before, but the feat remains stubbornly possible.

Even with Leno's new project putting training wheels on programming NBC primetime, the network's executives are not off the hook; they still will need to find some quality hits. At the risk of sounding like a suit at a podium, perhaps the key is to start by taking a long look at the NBC brand and deciding what it should be.

James Hibberd can be reached at james.hibberd@THR.com.
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