Monday, February 18, 2013

Is NBC Finished? Yes --And No

Everywhere I travel these days people involved in the TV industry are chattering over the brilliant New York article by Josef Adalian.
Titled "Has NBC Passed The Point Of No Return" it summarizes the currently dire situation of the peacock proud network which is sinking like a stone in the ratings.
But I can recall a time when NBC was in far worse shape.
Let's time travel all the way back to 1970-71 when I started covering TV for The Spectator and the Southam newspapers.
At that time the biggest newsmaker on American TV was Fred Silverman at CBS.
And I first story I wrote about him was his huge purge of such Top Ten hits as Green acres, Mayberry R.F.D., Hee Haw, The Beverly Hillbillies, Jack Benny and Red Skelton.
Silverman reckoned that the emerging urban texture of American life meant these still popular shows had seen better days. So he unloaded all of them at once.
In their place he promoted hipper new fare like  All In The Family, The Waltons, Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore.
Only the Waltons with its nostalgic glow had rural roots --and in such big cities as New York and Detroit the Waltons never made it to the top as it did in the rest of the country.
Then Silverman up and  in 1975 and the first faltering show he saved was Happy Days which CBS's Good Times had effectively destroyed in the ratings.
But most of Silverman's ABC picks were vastly different from his CBS shows: The Bionic Woman, Charlie's Angels, Theree's Company, Eight Is Enough, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Soap.
And very quickly ABC jumped from third lace to first in the ratings.
I covered all these shows and was on the set of most of them. I remember Barbara Stanwyck swearing under her breadth at the shenanigans the three long stemmed lovelies were pulling on the set of Charlie's Angels.
And I remember star of The Love Boat screaming at the TV critics when they asked him why he wasn't making quality fare like Mary Tyler Moore.
With Charlie's Angels and Battle Of The Network stars Silverman invented jiggle TV. The iconic shot of Farrah Fawcett in a bathing suit sold a million posters.
And then Silverman jumped again to NBC in 1978. He survived three years as NBC ratings continued to deep dive.
Silverman  brought in such rich, ripe stinkers as Hello, Larry and Supertrainbut he was also responsible for Hill Street Blues and Shogun.
In the sitcom field he started up Diff'rent Streokes, The Facts Of Life and Gimme A Break and started the development deals for Cheers and St. Elsewhere.
And he hired Brandon Tartikoff who after Silverman was dumped came forth with L.A. Law, Family Ties, Cosby, Cheers. Golden Girls, Remington Steele, Miami Vice, Seinfeld.
It was Tartikoff who made Thursday nights NBC's own particular ratings night with  Seinfeld, ER, and Frasier. Under Tartikoff NBC was Number One again.
I was there at the Cosby premiere and nobody thought it had a chance because its star was coming off the fiasco of a flop TV variety outing.
Tartikoff was decidedly lukewarm about Michael J. Fox taking over the role of Alex Keaton on Family ties but the talented Canadian actor turned it into a monster hit.
I remember at one Q and A he suddenly blurted out "I never should have cancelled Buffalo Bill. Never!"
So the fact is NBC has seen far worse times.
In today's multiple channel universe turning around an old fashioned broadcast network may be more difficult.
NBC has a habit of not sticking with potential hits like last season's remake of Prime Suspect. And the network entirely jettisoned Southland which is now faring right well on TNT.
This season the revamped Smash is back but with 40 per cent fewer viewers and 1600 Penn started strongly only to wither away.
In the old days Cosby's success Thursdays at 8 guaranteed the entire prime time night for NBC but that kind of viewer loyalty may no longer be possible.
These days NBC needs a whole big bag of newly minted hits for its fierce competition from cable.

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