Cosby's 'You Bet Your Life' strategy reflects poor network odds

November 03, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The show itself certainly does not seem like earth-shaking material.

There's a stage with a podium made to look like a Shaker-style desk for a questioner to sit behind and two doors for contestants and questioner to walk through as they come before the #F cameras. Outside of a high stool behind the podium, that's mainly it -- nothing if not understated.

But the man who will sit behind the desk, mugging and cracking wise, could make this show-in-the-making one of the most lucrative in TV history -- and drive another spike into the coffin of network television, at least the system we've known for some 40 years.

The man is Bill Cosby, the biggest name and highest-paid star of network TV. And part of what has the TV industry buzzing -- from Network Row in New York to stations in the smallest of American hometowns -- is that he's leaving network TV and going into syndication with his new show, a remake of Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" scheduled to debut next September. Cosby and the show's producers are selling it themselves on a station-by-station basis around the country, cutting out the network as middleman.

To the public, Cosby's defection from network TV will mean little. For Baltimore-area viewers it means only that instead of seeing Cosby Thursday nights at 8 on Channel 2 (NBC's "The Cosby Show"), they'll see him five nights a week at 7:30 on Channel 11, the local CBS affiliate that purchased "You Bet Your Life." (Cosby will also continue to be seen weekday afternoons on Channel 13, Baltimore's ABC affiliate, in reruns of the "The Cosby Show.")

What has the industry buzzing, though, is the way Cosby's move could affect the business of making TV shows and influence public perception of ABC, NBC and CBS when they are already in steep decline.

Cosby's decision made headlines when announced in July, but took on a different spin last week when the entertainer himself tied the shift to the networks' troubles.

"You don't have to be a business genius to see what's coming," he told the New York Times. "Not when you're reading about ABC and NBC and CBS and how these people are selling things off all the time, and you're not sure if the network boss you used to talk to is going to be the same one tomorrow."

Cosby added, "I don't think any business people with any independence are now looking only at the Big Three."

And so the biggest star of network TV is going off with Phil Donahue, Geraldo Rivera and the World Wrestling Federation to sell his talents on a station-by-station basis in each of the 212 TV markets. One industry analyst, who asked to remain anonymous, expects "You Bet Your Life" to exceed the $150 million that "Wheel of Fortune," the current top syndicated show, now earns.

The networks' position here is a tricky one. On one hand, they don't want the public to see them as being down so low that their big stars are defecting. On the other hand, they are lobbying in Congress for a share of the production and syndication business -- now denied them by Federal Communications Commission regulations -- by claiming they are indeed down so low that added revenue opportunities are required to survive.

Their only on-the-record response to Cosby's defection came this week in a brief reaction from NBC.

"It's odd that Cosby didn't come to NBC and offer it for a daytime show, or prime-time, maybe," Curt Bloch, an NBC vice president for media relations told The Sun.

Robert Jacobs, president of Carsey-Werner Distribution, which is selling "You Bet Your Life" in syndication, said there is nothing "odd" about Cosby's decision not to offer the new show to NBC.

"The networks have made it as clear as they can make it that

they're going out of the daytime business, not into it," Jacobs said. "I would guess that in three or four years, at least one of the three networks will be out of the daytime business altogther."

NBC, in fact, has already given an hour of morning time back to its affiliates because it is cheaper to let the affiliates have it than to continue programming the time slot at a loss.

"I don't think [a network daytime slot for 'You Bet Your Life'] was ever a possibility," Jacobs continued. "The networks could never match with daytime money the kind of money you can make running a show in prime-time access."

Prime time, the networks' domain, runs from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Prime-time access, which the affiliates may program as they wish, is from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. and enjoys significantly greater viewership than daytime periods. "You Bet Your Life" will air at 7:30 p.m. in most markets.

"That's only a half-hour away from prime time," Jacobs said, "and prime-time ad rates are worth 12 times as much as daytime. So you can see why it's so much more lucrative." (An exact comparison between network daytime rates and local station access rates is not possible because local rates vary market to market.)

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