Five ways NBC can pull itself out of last place
How new parent Comcast can boost No. 4 networkWith Steve Burke set to replace Jeff Zucker as CEO of NBC Universal and the news Monday that a high-profile analyst's valuation of the network is negative $600 million, the perpetual fourth-place broadcaster is on the verge of what might be its most dramatic corporate and cultural makeover in years. Here are five ways NBC's new parent can help it return to ratings glory:
Find your brand: NBC needs to spend a couple of weeks alone at a Lake Tahoe cabin, feeding the ducks and contemplating its identity. Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin wisely embraced a return to quality programming by giving top showrunners grown-up budgets. Launching a serialized genre show ("The Event") when rivals gave up on the format and opting to set a comedy ("Outsourced") in India were sharp ideas whether they succeed or not. But the network still feels like a jigsaw, with its weak-sauce "More Colorful" tagline and halfhearted stabs at such procedurals as "Chase" and "Outlaw." Those shows are what CBS does well. Edgy action and genre dramas are what Fox does well. Soaps are ABC's turf. So what is an NBC show? Burke needs to decide what NBC is and clearly communicate that identity to the industry and viewers.
Reclaim Thursday nights: NBC and CBS executives will politely say there's plenty of room for all comedies on premium Thursday nights, but don't be fooled: This is war. Putting "The Big Bang Theory" and "$#*! My Dad Says" against NBC's comedy block is crossing the Rubicon. NBC needs to play to win -- not just to survive. With "The Office," NBC launched one of the best comedies of the decade and proved sitcoms can be smart and still draw high ratings. It's the closest show to NBC's "Must-See TV"-era peak, when the network was the domain of upscale urbanites, and those who wished to be. But since, NBC has modeled nearly every comedy on the same single-camera workplace format, so no wonder none can surpass the success of the original "Office."
Go bold with reality shows: NBC loves nonthreatening reality pitches: "The Marriage Ref," "The Sing Off," "Losing It With Jillian, "Who Do You Think You Are." They advanced the genre a millimeter at a time. This can work for a livable number -- "Sing Off" and "Minute to Win It" squeaked by -- but it rarely delivers a breakthrough hit. Two of the biggest recent reality success stories were daring, headline-making concepts: CEOs go undercover to work at their major corporations (CBS' "Undercover Boss"), a group of so-called "guidos" and "guidettes" have sex in a beach house (MTV's "Jersey Shore," whose recent ratings are a hit even by broadcast standards). Most reality game-changers give viewers something they never have seen before along with high-stakes drama and a dash of controversy. Even stately "American Idol" once was considered envelope-pushing thanks to Simon Cowell's cruel insults of young, wide-eyed talent. Can going bold blow up in your face? Why, "Kid Nation"-yes. But you must try. Exploring the genealogy of celebrities never will get you there.
Think live: Sports, award shows, live reality shows. In the age of increasing DVR penetration, the more urgent the programming, the higher the rating. Figure out a way to create Must-See-Tonight TV, and reap the rewards.
Woo the Internet: Any TV blogger can tell you, there's no broadcaster that provokes more online disdain than NBC. This is a problem: Unless you're courting older viewers, nowadays the Internet is the media. And if the media doesn't respect NBC, gaining popularity becomes an uphill battle. There's no marketing campaign that can fix this. The only way to turn around the network's online reputation is by delivering content viewers respect or, at least, seems congruent with the network's personality. (Fox, for instance, is a master at fostering just enough of a rebellious reputation that it gets away with embracing occasional tawdry content.) During Premiere Week, Fox and NBC respectively flopped with "Lone Star" and "Outlaw," but at least viewers and advertisers respect Fox for trying to deliver an elevated standard of content. The same goes for making decisions. "The Jay Leno Show" fiasco wasn't just about the shows and talk-show hosts but the network's perceived integrity. Displaying values like honesty, embracing quality and keeping your word might sound corny, but they are valuable brand-building attributes.
All of which comes back to: What is NBC?
Here's a suggestion: "The Office," your top-rated show, is the first brick of your new brand. Take a page from Fox during the 1990s. Reinvent yourself as younger, edgier and cooler than rivals, with smart and bold shows that also -- and here's the real trick -- appeal to wide audiences. From ABC's "Lost" to "Desperate Housewives" to CBS' "CSI" to Fox's "Glee" to ABC's "Modern Family," the breakout hits during the past decade reflect innovation more than replication. This is a tactic NBC has been attempting with its comedies, with varying success, but not so much with its dramas and reality shows.
NBC executives should raise their hands and pledge to this mission statement: "Whether it's a new character or a fresh concept, I solemnly swear to never again order a show that doesn't give viewers at least something that's entirely original."