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Another Vision for NBC

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“If creaky old NCIS can draw 20 million viewers, imagine what the combination of money, creativity, smart casting, production values, and an innovative broadcast-network programmer could do.”

With the right breaks? I’m guessing, oh, maybe 10 million.

Cynicism aside, I highly recommend Mark Harris’ take on the many troubles of NBC in New York magazine, in which he asks some good questions: Why is Jeff Zucker even running a broadcast network if he doesn’t seem to believe in broadcast TV? And isn’t there another way of adapting NBC to a lower-cost, smaller-audience era besides five nights of Leno?

One thing I like about Harris’ essay is that he isn’t simply making the argument that NBC needs to fill up its schedule with scripted dramas, as if in some sort of philanthropic effort to keep screenwriters employed by making more Law & Order clones. Harris acknowledges that “in order to survive, networks are going to have crib a few pages from the basic-cable playbook.”

But even if you believe that ultimately, the simple facts of audience fragmentation mean that the big networks will have to become more like cable, Jay Leno’s not the only way to do that. Networks like FX and AMC, for instance, get praised by critics and fans for producing an amount of original programming that would get Zucker pilloried. The difference is, they make the right few hours of programming, they target it, and they promote it right.

It’s called having a brand, and NBC used to have quite a good one. It still persists in comedies like The Office and Parks and Recreation, but it’s been diluted—to be fair, not just by Leno and The Biggest Loser, but also by mediocre dramas like Trauma and My Own Worst Enemy. Beyond Thursday night, NBC simply seems like it’s programmed by people who don’t like TV that much.

Of course, it may be the strategy now is to simply sell NBC to Comcast as a cable-channel group with a broadcast network thrown in for free. I don’t think NBC can bring back the glory days of broadcast TV as a mass medium. I don’t think it needs to, or even should. But as Harris says, it needs to stop sending the message: “We’re not even going to pretend we’re trying anymore.” If the network doesn’t seem to care, it can’t expect viewers to.

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