Broadcast blahs at NBC: To air is unprofitable, to unload seems divine

October 29, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

The reports this week that Bill Cosby might buy NBC bring the number of potential big-name buyers of the ailing network to at least four.

Last month, published reports said Paramount, the movie and TV studio run by former NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, was going to buy NBC. Before that it was Barry Diller, the former Fox honcho. And before that it was Johnny Carson. It seems the only moneybags who hasn't been mentioned yet as a possible future owner of NBC is Ross Perot. And that report will probably be making the rounds by the end of next week.

But while no one seems to have nailed down exactly who the new boss is going to be, this much is certain: NBC is a network in trouble, and General Electric would like to unload it at a price somewhere in the $2 billion range before the troubles get worse.

You don't have to look much further than tonight's prime time schedule to start to understand the nature of NBC's miseries.

Thursday used to be NBC's big night. By 1986, Cosby had the highest-rated show in all of TV, and it led off the night. It was so strong that virtually any show following it at 8:30 became a Top 20 hit just because of the spillover.

But "A Different World," which Cosby helped create, was not just any show. And, by 1987, NBC had another quality hit with the series starring Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison.

Then came "Cheers" and "L.A. Law," to give NBC a night of profit that was almost obscene, in addition to a night of such high ratings that the network owned first place through the rest of the 1980s.

A sense of that profit can be gleaned from the following math.

Using 1992 dollars, "Cosby" was earning about $325,000 per NTC 30-second spot. On average, the network sells about nine of those spots per episode and uses another three 30-second spots within such hit shows to promote other parts of its lineup.

Nine times $325,000 is $2.925 million. Even figuring that NBC paid $2 million an episode for the show, the network was still clearing $925,000 each week for 22 weeks, or about $20 million a season in profit. And the profit margin was even greater for "A Different World," because as a Top 20 show with young demographics it was earning top advertising dollars, but the network paid much less for it.

After you do all the math, Thursday night alone was worth more than $100 million in profits a year during NBC's glory years -- thanks mainly to Cosby.

But it's a different picture this year. And one of the keys is a new sitcom, "Rhythm and Blues," which airs at 8:30 tonight before going on hiatus next week. The show about a white disc jockey at a black station in Detroit is a bomb. It's such a bomb that the network can't get $85,000 per 30-second spot, which means it loses money even airing the show.

But that's not even the bad news. "Rhythm and Blues" is dragging down the rest of the night. What's happening is that many viewers for "A Different World" are tuning out NBC at 8:30 when "Rhythm and Blues" comes on, and they are not coming back at 9 for "Cheers."

A look at where the viewers are going at 8:30 points to one of the big problems at NBC this year. Fox is luring viewers away with another sitcom about a disc jockey in Detroit, "Martin," starring comedian Martin Lawrence.

NBC's overall strategy in its entertainment division this year was togo after young demographics -- specifically viewers 18 to 34, the twentysomething crowd. The thinking was that it would not be No. 1 overall, but with young demographics it could finish second or third and still make money.

To accomplish this, NBC went after shows like Aaron Spelling's "Round Table," about young professionals in Georgetown, and ditched shows that attracted older viewers, such as "Golden Girls," "Matlock" and "In the Heat of the Night."

But for the strategy to work, NBC would have to outgun Fox, which had been targeting viewers 18 to 34 for years and had won them over with such shows as "The Simpsons" and "In Living Color." The advertising industry didn't think much of NBC's chances. When the up-front advertising season -- the three-month period during which most of the advertising time for the TV year is sold -- ended in July, NBC finished last in sales. CBS was first, with Fox second.

Six weeks into the new season, the results of the showdown between sitcoms featuring Detroit deejays at 8:30 on Thursday nights is fairly typical of how it's gone overall for NBC: The network is losing badly.

Warren Littlefield, the network's entertainment president, has moved quickly. In addition to sending "Rhythm and Blues" off to hiatus, he canceled "Round Table."

He also canceled two "reality" series, "What Happened?" and "Final Appeal." That left "I'll Fly Away" as the only series still standing on Fridays.

Littlefield now has a schedule with problems all over the place. From the look of last week's premiere episode of "L.A. Law," things are going to get even worse on Thursday nights. "L.A. Law" might not even make to the end of the year.

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