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Patience is key to an NBC revival, TV historian Tim Brooks says

nbc_proud_as_a_peacockNBC’s precipitous drop to a historic low among the broadcast networks in 2012-13 after it won 13 of the first 15 weeks of the season reflects deep-rooted scheduling problems that can’t be fixed quickly.

Even in an era when attention spans seem to be shrinking by the minute, NBC’s corporate parent, Comcast Corp., will simply have to be patient as the network tries to straighten out its development process, according to Tim Brooks, a veteran researcher in the TV industry and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present.”

“The ratings are a cruel taskmaster,” Brooks said in an interview with Reveal Shot. “You get a report card every morning when you come in, and there’s not much you can do about it in the short term.

“The networks that have been successful over the years — including NBC — have had management teams that will give them some time, as Grant Tinker gave Brandon Tartikoff some time — painfully, in fact, from the time he took over in 1981 until 1984, when they finally ignited.”

In comes Fred Silverman

From the mid-1950s through the mid-’70s, NBC was usually a solid, if frustrating, second in the battle among the Big Three networks, behind CBS. Sometimes it would get off to a promising start, only to be eclipsed in the second half of the season by the gang at Black Rock. (One example was the 1972-73 season.)

When ABC, the perennial last-place finisher, moved to the top of the food chain in the 1976-77 season with hits like “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Three’s Company,” proud CBS finally dropped into second and NBC found itself in last place, though only by 0.6%. In a sure sign that the production cupboard was getting bare, the network had surged in the first half of the season after loading up on specials, but faltered badly down the stretch. 1

After another third-place debacle in 1977-78, NBC parent RCA was ready for change. In June 1978, the Peacock network ousted President and CEO Herb Schlosser and replaced him with the man who had turned ABC around, Fred Silverman.

Despite the fact that Silverman didn’t arrive in time to put his stamp on shows developed for the fall season, another disastrous finish in 1978-79 led to “persistent rumors that Mr. Silverman’s tenure at the network would be short-lived,” the New York Times said in its May 2, 1979 edition. RCA Chief Executive Edgar Griffiths gave Silverman his full backing, though he ominously stated that the difference between NBC and its rivals was “only two or three hit shows.”2

The misfires continued, however. Silverman famously made a terrible bet on “Supertrain,” a sort of “Love Boat” on rails, which premiered in the second half of the 1978-79 season and immediately flopped, though it limped on through the summer. He also rolled out splashy variety shows and miniseries, trying to catch lightning in a bottle somewhere, somehow.

Disasters during the 1979-80 season included a big made-for-TV miniseries version of “From Here To Eternity,” starring William Devane and Natalie Wood; a variety show called “Pink Lady and Jeff“; and even a sitcom from the highly respected Larry Gelbart, “United States.” NBC finished last yet again, winning the weekly Nielsen race just twice during the 31-week period.

This was the era when NBC’s promotional campaign, “Proud As A Peacock,” tried to whip up enthusiasm for shows that were frequently awful, combining reminders of its distinguished past with cheesy shots of people who play baseball, do gymnastics and other activities with only NBC on their minds:

 

There Goes Freddie — But Brandon stays

On its way to another humiliation in 1980-81, RCA had seen enough. It approached Grant Tinker.

Tinker, who co-founded the highly successful production company MTM Enterprises in 1969 with his wife, Mary Tyler Moore, was at the top of the television world in 1981. Several of the company’s prime-time hits were by then doing very well in syndication, most notably”The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Bob Newhart Show.” It was also doing brisk business in first-run programming, with “The White Shadow,” “Lou Grant” and other shows, including a program Silverman green-lighted as a mid-season replacement for NBC in 1980-81 and later renewed for the fall, “Hill Street Blues.”

Brooks, an NBC employee during the period, remembers Tinker’s reaction when RCA made its pitch.

“Tinker told the board, ‘You want me. I don’t want you. So I’ll come on one condition. You’ve got to let me have some time to build this.

“He took Brandon Tartikoff, who had been a young programmer under Silverman, but he could see something in him — and said ‘Look, I want the kind of network that has quality to it. One that’s popular, but is willing to try things like ‘Hill Street Blues.’ ”

Programs developed on Tartikoff’s early watch, such as “Hill Street,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Cheers” and “Family Ties” did not do well in the Nielsens initially. “But they had good demo[graphics],” Brooks said, and they remained on the schedule.

“When ‘The Cosby Show’ was added to the  mix, in 1984, that was the spark they needed. They built a lineup around that,  and they were off to the races.”

Perhaps surprisingly, in retrospect, NBC’s vaunted Thursday-night lineup didn’t vault the network into a first-place finish for 1984-85. CBS, still buoyed by “Dallas,” “60 Minutes” and “Knots Landing,” was No. 1 for the 30-week season with a 16.9 rating, followed by NBC at 16.2. ABC was last with a 15.4.3

The momentum was clearly on NBC’s side, however, with “Cosby” ranking as the No. 3 show for 1984-85 with a 24.0 and 37 share. Other NBC shows in the top 20 included “Family Ties” (No. 4), “The A-Team” (tied for No. 6), “Cheers” (No. 13),” “Riptide” (tied for No. 14) and “NBC Monday Night At The Movies” (No. 20).

The April 23, 1986 edition of Weekly Variety declared, in a banner headline, “NBC-TV VICTORY ENDS 30-YEAR DROUGHT,” as the network won convincingly in 1985-86. “Due to the early deadline of this issue, the official ratings for the season ended April 20 are not available,” the magazine said, “but NBC was leading CBS-TV, 17.6 to 16.7, when Week 29 ended April 13 and by any standards, the network has executed a clear-cut victory this season.” 4

“Cosby” was the top-rated show for the year with a 33.8 rating and 51 share.

Building  a brand

Brooks said that because people do have so many more choices today, it’s that much more important to be patient with shows that can’t find an audience immediately, both in terms of keeping the show on the air and maintaining stability within a promising program’s production team.

“What you have to concentrate on today is building a brand, giving people an expectation,” Brooks said.

“CBS has done that. You expect them to be the network that is traditional. Well executed but traditional, with its crime procedurals and comedies, which are a bit old-fashioned in the way they’re shot. It’s safe and it’s comfortable. You go to ABC, you probably get something that’s pretty family friendly, pretty women-friendly. There’s kind of a feeling for what that is.

“But you go to NBC, and what is it that you’re going to find? Some sci-fi epic, or a talent competition with stunt casting? ‘Howie Do It,’ these kind of cheapo, fill-in kinds of shows. Or are you going to have a late night couch show in the middle of prime-time? So it’s like they’re flailing around. They don’t have a brand.

“They kind of started scattershotting, looking for a [particular] show. That’s not the way you have to do it. You have to look for something that rebuilds and maintains your brand.”

– David B. Wilkerson

 

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  1. Broadcasting magazine, May 30, 1977. “CBS confident new bench strength will recapture prime-time lead,” pg. 43.  
  2. New York Times, May 2, 1979. “RCA Expects Sharp Dip in NBC’s 1979 Earnings.” (subscription required)  
  3. Weekly Variety, April 24, 1985, pg. 176.  
  4. Weekly Variety, April 23, 1986, pg. 35.  

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