Comcast-nbc: More Leno, And No More 'Free' Tv?

Z ON TV

Z On Tv

December 04, 2009|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik , David.Zurawik@baltsun.com

While consumer groups are criticizing the proposed deal between Comcast and General Electric that will make Comcast the new owner of NBC Universal, perhaps the biggest losers are not consumers so much as NBC affiliate stations like WBAL in Baltimore. Such local stations aligned to NBC can expect more network moves like the one that brought Jay Leno to prime time this fall on NBC and blew up the ratings for their home-based 11 p.m. newscasts.

In terms of the traditional way of doing network business of the last 60 years, the Leno move was and is a disaster - just as many critics like me have written, and affiliate managers are now starting to admit when they can no longer hide the ratings and revenue losses their late local newscasts are suffering with the ratings-challenged Leno lead-in.

It was a disaster, because the network-affiliate relationship was the core of the TV business model, and even though companies like Hearst, Sinclair and Scripps owned the local stations and made the money off their local newscasts, the network had to treat them right and look out for their interests because they were in business together.

No more. Station group owners that own NBC affiliates are on their own now. And in the new cable-think of companies like the proposed Comcast-NBC Universal, moving Leno to prime time was a sound move.

Jeff Zucker, the chief of NBC-Universal who is responsible for the Leno move, said as much earlier in the year when he proclaimed that NBC is not a network as much as a cable company, since channels like USA and Bravo make more money than the last-place NBC network does for the company. And even if NBC were doing better in the ratings and making larger profits, it wouldn't matter much, because the network model is on the way out - profits and audiences are eroding for all of them.

And so, the way to think if you are running an entertainment conglomerate that doesn't see a future for network TV is like this: The heck with the affiliates.

Long term, making a move like Leno would be a bad thing because the affiliates will lose money and try to find a new network to align with when their contracts expire. But who is thinking long term when it comes to a dinosaur business model in these tumultuous times? Let's save the money now on production costs for Leno, and look good in our own conglomerate books in the next quarter.

So, consumer groups are right to worry that between Disney-ABC and Comcast-Universal, we are now at the beginning of the end of "free" TV. If you think your Comcast bill is high now, get used to it. This is the future of television, and it's here in all its downsized, cable-think glory.

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