NBC Has Had its Ups and Downs: Can Comcast Save the Peacock Network?

During Congressional testimony Thursday, top executives from Comcast (CMSCA) and NBC Universal pledged to restore the luster of the beleaguered Peacock Network, which has suffered through low ratings, a dearth of hit shows, and most recently, the Leno-Conan debacle.But critics voiced concerns that Comcast could eviscerate the network by moving NBC's free programming to cable or by withholding programming from competitors. Comcast and NBC executives repeatedly denied that's their goal.

"Comcast is committing to free, over-the-air television," NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker told the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. At a time when the broadcast television model seems to be crumbling, Zucker said the merger "gives me greater comfort" about the future of free NBC television.

"NBC Needs Some Better Shows"

But Zucker also acknowledged that NBC's first order of business must be to improve its programming. "NBC needs some better shows," Zucker told Senate lawmakers during a later hearing.

This isn't the first time NBC has needed a major refresh. In the early 1980s, NBC, once the dominant American network, had settled into last place. Its prime-time lineup was in shambles. Though a handful of shows were critical favorites, none was a winner in the Nielsens. So profound was the network's inability to create a genuinely popular hit comedy, some wondered if the sitcom format had simply become obsolete.

Sound familiar? Yes, it's an apt description of the way things are at NBC on the verge of its takeover by Comcast, but it also captures the state of the Peacock Network in the early 1980s, before a string of hits -- first The Cosby Show and The A-Team, and, later, Seinfeld, Friends and ER -- transformed it into the powerhouse purveyor of Must-See TV. And anyone preparing to write NBC's obituary in the wake of the failed Jay Leno Show experiment would do well to keep that in mind.

Two Shows Helped Turn Things Around

"NBC had been written off as being close to out of business in the early '80s," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "There was a while there where NBC was consistently not putting anything into the top 20, and where practically every new show they introduced flopped. And all it took was essentially Cosby and The A-Team to turn that thing around."

The towering success of The Cosby Show, in particular, made possible the network's growth of the subsequent 15 years by turning Thursday night into a springboard that could be used to make practically any anointed series into a hit. (Well, maybe not any series. Anyone remember Suddenly Susan?)

History alone would've been an adequate reason not to count NBC out. Of the three original broadcast networks, NBC has the proudest pedigree. Television, as a technology, had its coming-out party at the 1939 World's Fair, where it was unveiled at the RCA Pavilion -- RCA being NBC's then-owner. Much of what we recognize today as standard television programming was pioneered at NBC. "If you say that CBS invented television news as we know it, you could say that NBC invented early-morning, late-night and Sunday pundit shows," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of research at Horizon Media.

'The Today Show' Is Most Profitable Program

Meet The Press is the longest-running show on television, while The Today Show is the most profitable. Both are No. 1 in their respective ratings races and have been for years -- as was The Tonight Show before Conan O'Brien took over for Jay Leno last summer. Even so, it's only because there was a Tonight Show that Letterman's Late Show, which has overtaken it, ever came to exist in the first place. "It's not as though some law of nature determined that a late-night comedy talk show has got to have a desk, a monologue and some interviews," says Thompson.

Once Leno returns to 11:30 p.m., there's a good chance The Tonight Show will regain its spot atop the late-night ratings pyramid. NBC also has the top-rated evening newscast and, of course, the top morning show. That leaves prime time. Is it just a matter of sitting around and waiting for a Cosby-sized hit to come rolling along? Not exactly, says Thompson.

In fact, he says, NBC's mid-'80s revival had its roots in the late '70s when the network "started doing some really good things." Shows like Fame, Taxi and Hill Street Blues didn't attract huge audiences, but the network showed patience, renewing them in the hopes that quality programming would find an audience.

'Second Golden Age Of Television'

"NBC's philosophy was they were going to balance a schedule of hip, classy, literate new television with your good, old-fashioned, mainstream meat-and-potatoes -- your Knight Rider and your A-Team," says Thompson. So when The Cosby Show did arrive, NBC was able to use its drawing power to promote other shows it believed in -- and it worked. "In the end, NBC has to be given credit for starting the renaissance of what I call the second Golden Age of television."

Will there be a third?
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