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Too Much Television on TV, NBC Declares

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To borrow the terminology of its sitcom The Office, NBC announced today that it is merging the Scranton and Stamford branches. In a massive cost-cutting and head-chopping initiative, the beleaguered NBC Universal, weighed down by a languishing primetime schedule, will restructure in an effort to save as much as $750 million. About 700 people will lose their jobs. Expensive prime-time fiction programming will be cut in favor of cheaper reality and game shows. The news division will be cut deeply, with offices at NBC News, CNBC and MSNBC combined to lower headcount. And MSNBC will begin airing a 24-hour live feed of tropical fish in an aquarium.

(OK, I made that last one up, but there has been speculation that the channel will be slashed and revamped, perhaps with a focus on documentaries, with news shows like Keith Olbermann’s and Chris Matthews’ moving to CNBC. Plus, it would get better ratings than MSNBC’s news is getting.)

What does this mean for your nightly TV viewing? (Assuming you watch much NBC, which, let’s face it, statistically speaking you probably don’t.) It means get used to Howie Mandel. NBC Universal TV president and CEO Jeff Zucker said that NBC will no longer be airing expensive dramas in the 8 p.m. E.T. hour. Given that it scarcely does to begin with, this is kind of a fancy-pants way of saying, "We’re canceling Friday Night Lights." (They haven’t yet, but with the show pulling under 7 million viewers, I wouldn’t get attached to it.) But the way Zucker said it is significant. "This is going to be a slow evolution," he told the Wall Street Journal, "but there’s a reason that two of the five broadcast networks [Fox and the CW] program two hours a night instead of three." 

He may have a point: in the age of TiVo and cable, viewers have so many media options that old-fashioned TV networks may be putting on too much new stuff for it to break through. That said, I’d rather they kept something other than Mandel leering over suitcases of money. But other than football and modest success Heroes, NBC has had one bomb after another this fall–Studio 60, Kidnapped and Lights–and as a subsidiary of GE, the network is in the suitcases-of-money business.

In the WSJ article, the coming cuts were described as a move by "heir apparent" Zucker to bolster his chances of ultimately becoming head of NBC Universal. The irony: during the years that Zucker was actually the programming head of NBC TV, he demonstrated little taste or commercial success, coasting on the network’s established hits, creating few new ones and setting the network up to slump after hits like Friends and Frasier went off the air. But hey, if you can’t succeed by developing TV shows, then succeed by killing them!

To be fair, while Zucker never showed much aptitude for progamming primetime TV, he has always seemed to have a sharp sense of where TV is heading as a business. All of these changes have been dressed up in the language of an "NBC 2.0" makeover, which Zucker says is about developing its online content and reconceiving the way the network’s content is sold and distributed for the 21st century. Which in turn is a fancy-pants way of saying that nobody knows how to make money anymore in the YouTube/iTunes/DVD/DVR era.

But at least NBC is trying to figure it out, which is the sort of thing you’re forced to do when you’re fourth place in the ratings. I don’t know if Zucker has glimpsed the future of TV, but if he has, the small screen may be in the process of getting even smaller.

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