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Someone Else to Get Shot at Making NBC Good Again

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Comcast, the intended new owner of NBC Universal, today announced its planned organizational structure for the outfit. The cable side of the operation, which has been doing quite well, will stay largely the same, with Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zelaznick continuing to divvy up those properties and related ones. As for the NBC network—what you simply know as “NBC” and the source of many of the larger companies’ woes—former Showtime head Robert Greenblatt will take over programming, and thus the goal, which eluded several execs before him, of restoring the networks’ ratings fortunes (and, at least it would be nice, its reputation for quality as well).

Not that anyone is asking me, but a good place to start is to recognize that NBC’s business fortunes and its quality brand are directly related—but that (thanks to Showtime among other channels), “quality” is simply more of a niche business than it used to be.

Any new NBC head has to take a look at its failures and successes in recent years. The failures, obviously, are easier to find. Aside from the Jay Leno Show, in broad terms NBC has failed repeatedly with shows that fall under the heading of middlebrow drama: Undercovers, My Own Worst Enemy, Knight Rider, Trauma, &c. (This is why I’m a little skeptical of the idea that NBC can be successful by basically translating USA shows to a broadcast network.) The network has notably failed with embarrassing reality shows like I’m a Celebrity…, which were off-brand for the network, but in their own way, so were its repeated attempts at unambitious, escapist dramas. (At least they’re off-brand for any version of NBC since back when the original Knight Rider was on the air.)

NBC’s successes in the last half year or so have obviously been fewer, but the best exemplars are its Thursday comedy block. That is to say: they’re not huge mass hits (arguably excepting The Office), but besides bringing the network cachet, they have good demographics for advertisers.

Jeff Zucker and his various lieutenants have caught a lot of deserved criticism. But I think in the whole Jay Leno, managing-for-margins debacle there were some real, valid insights into what broadcast TV is now. One of those truths is, simply: there is probably not room for another CBS. That is, TV is probably not going to support three broadcast networks drawing big mass audiences for scripted TV, and NBC has not helped itself when it has fought its branding and tried to play that game.

NBC, whether it likes it or not, is a 30 Rock network, not a Grey’s Anatomy or NCIS network. (That probably sounds mildly, if not strongly elitist, but that’s what branding for “quality” and demographics is all about.) It’s better off accepting that it still has a good brand, but one in a niche of the market that is driven more by demographics than big audience numbers.

That doesn’t mean that NBC can’t make shows that are escapist and fun, but they need to aim at a certain kind of escapism and fun that doesn’t conflict with the audience they’re pulling with shows like The Office. Look at, for instance, what Bravo does on cable.

The good news for NBC is that, after a decade of Jeff Zucker, it somehow still has a brand, even if that brand has largely been defined in the breach. Like it or not, NBC is stuck with the quality label. We’ll have to see if Greenblatt can make that label ring true, and if he can make it work.