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