Thursday, May 27, 2010

Will the 2010/11 television season be "do or die" for NBC?

The overnight rating numbers for last night are out, and unsurprisingly, Fox won the night by a huge margin due to the "American Idol" finale. However, I'd like to focus more on the other end of the scale. NBC ended the night in fifth place. "How can they finish in fifth place, when there's only four major TV networks in the US?", you ask. NBC actually finished behind Univision, the Spanish-language network, and that's not been an uncommon occurrence. In fact, Univision actually won the entire night last night in the Los Angeles market. Only CW finished lower nationally than NBC.

We know that NBC started the season with the amazingly stupid tactic of putting Jay Leno on at 10 p.m. five nights a week, thus obliterating its ratings for the 10 p.m. period, chasing away viewers from shows in earlier timeslots, and devastating ratings for its affiliates' 11 p.m. news programs and the following "Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien." NBC changed direction mid-season, but the changes haven't made much of a difference. Switching Jay Leno back to the Tonight Show is unlikely to save NBC in late night. Even though he's still beating David Letterman, Leno's ratings are falling below those of Conan O'Brien.

The network has announced its 2010/11 prime time schedule, and a lot of effort has gone into getting better shows on the air. However, if that doesn't work, NBC and its likely new owner Comcast will be in a very difficult position. Comcast is under heavy pressure from some senior U.S. senators and representatives to not make NBC a cable-only network, but even if the Comcast deal doesn't go through and General Electric keeps NBC Universal, GE would have to seriously consider going cable-only if NBC doesn't improve its ratings substantially.

Comcast would undoubtedly like to get the deal done before the the overall results of the 2010/11 season are clear, so it may have to bet that NBC will dramatically improve its performance, but there's not a lot of positive evidence with which to substantiate that bet. There are, however, some things that Comcast could do to get value out of NBC, even if it can't take the whole thing to cable for a while:
  • Create an NBC Sports Network to compete with ESPN. NBC Sports still has a strong reputation due to its many years of Olympics coverage and more recent NFL coverage. Rebrand Comcast Sportsnet as NBC Sports, so for example, Comcast Sportsnet Chicago would become NBC Sports Chicago. This would give Comcast significantly more leverage over Disney in its negotiations for ESPN's carriage fees, as well as the opportunity to generate more advertising revenues.
  • Get the NBC broadcast side out of the news business. Fox is doing fine without a news component in its broadcast network. Move NBC News' assets to MSNBC and CNBC, and simulcast those networks' programming if necessary.
These two moves would leave an NBC that looks much more like USA Network than like ABC, CBS or even Fox. It would make NBC purely entertainment-focused, although it could always source content from its sister networks to fulfill requirements. If the company decides to continue carrying the Olympics, the NBC Sports Network would become the flagship network for that event.

These may be Plan B or even C options for Comcast, but they have to be considered.
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