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Almost every time there’s a Television Critics Association press tour — and that’s twice a year, if you’re counting — NBC goes first. Not always, but it’s more like some accidental tradition left over from the Warren Littlefield years, when NBC beat everybody’s ass so hard they went first whether you liked it or not.
That didn’t always work out so great in the Jeff Zucker years, of course. Sometimes it’s better to have the critics all punched out by the time you come up and try to explain fourth place in a four-network race. But this year, being first not only meant that Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, could gloat about how well his network did, but also that he could be the first one to tell you how badly everybody else did, before they could get here and spin it.
Ah, that is some kind of sublime after you’ve been mocked for years. Like he was on Jay Leno, Greenblatt came out to the packed room of critics and television reporters and said: “What a difference a year makes, right? I think last year, I came out here and admitted right off the top that we’d had a bad fall. I think what I actually said was that we’d had a really shitty fall.”
“Well, I’m not saying that this year,” Greenblatt added. And he took his moment to gloat – which would turn out to be pretty much the last one at TCA. Here’s what going first while also being at the top allowed Greenblatt to say:
“But as you’re all, I’m sure, very well aware, season to date at NBC, we’re up 24 percent in 18-49. We’re up 19 percent in total viewers and up by double-digit percentages in all other key categories. As you also know, NBC is the only network among the four broadcast nets to be up in 18-49, total viewers or by any other key measure.”
He took a breath. Somewhere else three of the other Big Four networks covered their ears.
“Through 14 weeks of the season in 18-49, CBS is down 13 percent, ABC is down 4 percent, and Fox is down 23 percent. You know, also in total viewers, the other three networks are down and we’re up, as I said. We all know that CBS still leads the networks in total viewers, but we’re now the clear number two, up from what was a distant number four a year ago this time. In the 18-49 demo, we’ve been number one or tied for number one for 12 of the season’s first 14 weeks, and I’m going to, prematurely probably, add this week to the roster given the strength of last night’s football game.”
And he was right. Naturally, that didn’t allow any other network president to come in here and do a song and dance. They have each taken different tactics.
Kevin Reilly, chairman of entertainment for Fox, opted for humor. “You may have noticed that we here at Fox kind of limped our way in out of 2012, so nobody’s happier than us to turn the page and get on to a fresh year, where I think there’s some better things to come.”
At one point, Reilly turned more philosophical about how hard it is to find an audience and laid bare the facts: “At Fox, we’re struggling right now because we didn’t put on a big hit.”
Later, Reilly joked with a reporter who had screwed up a question, reassuring her that everybody messes up. “We all do. Look at my fall.”
Everybody laughed. When you’re an entertainment president and you’re coming off a bad season, sometimes you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying. When Paul Lee, who holds that job for ABC, came before us on Thursday, he was more in the mood to go old-school magician on us, a tactic employed pretty much since entertainment presidents started walking out in front of the TCA and explaining their failures publicly.
Lee said the network had “a lot to shout about” but also “a lot to do.” Unfortunately, the shouting wasn’t so much yelling about ABC’s failures as it was spinning some vague numbers – the old magic of dazzling percentages that mean almost nothing. Ah, but in the “a lot to do” category, Lee said that would include trying — and failing — to find a hit.
“I think we were disappointed that there were no big breakout hits on broadcast on any of the networks, on ABC in particular,” he said.
On Saturday, CBS will have Nina Tassler come out and do some kind of variation on Lee and Reilly, where she is likely to gloss over the lack of a fall hit and favor total viewers and CBS’s history of being popular. She may also shout, “Look over there!” and run off the stage while we do.
On Sunday, the CW – the network of magical thinking and invisible money — will have its executive session with president Mark Pedowitz, who will talk about rainbows and unicorns and how his network is only sometimes, but not always, beaten by the Spanish-language broadcasters.
The point is, people, it was not a good fall. Only NBC can gloat, and we’re only letting it gloat this much because NBC has been to hell and beyond for more than a decade, and it would seem cruel not to let it have some joy.
But again – fall: not good.
There are so many confounding, true, serious and important reasons why that is, and we’ll get to them in a separate column. But right now, the focus is on a lack of gloating. It’s the sound of silence from people used to touting their prosperity, even when it has to be spun six ways to Sunday. These days, network executives are finding it harder and harder to be upbeat.
What’s the sound of one hand clapping, then? Easy. It’s NBC.
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