Thursday, May 16, 2013

What the Zuck is wrong NBC?

Despite the title, this isn't a joke. NBC raises all sorts of interesting questions about why some massive companies have long periods of excellence and others have runs of incompetence, or more specifically a period of excellence followed immediately by a period of gross incompetence (one that shows no sign of abating).

Here's Ken Levine (who knows what he's talking about on the subject) assessing the current state of the network:
But the message is clear. NBC was a disaster last year. It’s hard to build an audience with so many new shows but what choice did they have? Last year they had star vehicles (like Matthew Perry in GO ON), the Olympics to promote their schedule, THE VOICE, and SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL. And still they finished the year in shambles.  
This is what might be called the third period of NBC television (when we go back to the radio era, things get complicated, with what was NBC being split into NBC and ABC, but that's a story for another time). For about the first thirty years, CBS was on top, NBC was in the middle and ABC was at the bottom. In the late Seventies, though, everything went topsy turvy. ABC hit number one and actually started poaching stations from NBC.

The second period starts in the early Eighties and is usually associated with Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff. This was the era of Must-see TV. NBC went from last to first and remained arguably the dominant network for almost twenty years.

Sometime around 2000, we hit the third period. The network went into sharp decline and has mostly stayed at the bottom ever since.

The standard explanation for this is good management/bad management (I've used it myself), but I'm starting to have my doubts. For starters, that relies on both great-man and idiot-in-charge theories and though I find the second somewhat more believable than the first (it is almost always easier to screw up something good than it is to fix something bad), both tend to have their impact exaggerated.

Worse yet, if we extend the data in either direction -- pre-Tinker (i.e. Silverman, who had a long string of successes stretching over two networks before he got to NBC) and post-Zucker -- the theory ceases to hold. We can possibly explain away the Silverman era based on timing, short tenure and expectations (Silverman's run was less of a disaster than most people realize and on some ways even laid the groundwork for Tinker's success*).

The post-Zucker era, however, is not easily explained away. Zucker was an embarrassingly underqualified executive who oversaw what was probably the worst decline in more than six decades of network television,  but he has been gone for almost three years and there does not seem to have been a noticeable improvement or even a significant change in direction.

NBC remains an organization that has no clue about how to do its job: it doesn't know how to develop or cultivate shows; it decided to waste a large chunk of its valuable Olympics real estate promoting arguably the least promising new show it had at the time; developing a new channel for the terrestrial market, it launches one of the most badly thought out ad campaigns you'll ever see and makes programming decisions like pairing Munster, Go Home with a drama about a raped nun killing her newborn baby.

I don't have an explanation for what happened with NBC. I don't even have a good theory. I do however have a different way of framing the question. Instead of focusing on the styles and decisions of different executives, perhaps we should be asking how a company goes from hiring executives like Tinker and Tartikoff to hiring executives like Zucker and apparently many more like him.

* From Wikipedia:
Despite these failures, there were high points in Silverman's tenure at NBC, including the launch of the critically lauded Hill Street Blues (1981), the epic mini-series "Shogun" and The David Letterman Show (daytime, 1980), which would lead to Letterman's successful late night program in 1982. Silverman had Letterman in a holding deal after the morning show which kept the unemployed Letterman from going to another network. ...

Silverman also developed successful comedies such as Diff'rent Strokes, The Facts of Life, and Gimme a Break!, and made the series commitments that led to Cheers and St. Elsewhere. Silverman also pioneered entertainment reality programming with the 1979 launch of Real People. ... On Saturday mornings, in a time when most of the cartoon output of the three networks were similar, Silverman oversaw the development of an animated series based on The Smurfs; the animated series The Smurfs ran from 1981 to 1989, well after Silverman's departure, making it one of his longest-lasting contributions to the network. He also oversaw a revival of The Flintstones.

In other areas of NBC, Silverman revitalized the news division, which resulted in Today and NBC Nightly News achieving parity with their competition for the first time in years. He created a new FM Radio Division, with competitive full-service stations in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington. During his NBC tenure, Silverman also brought in an entirely new divisional and corporate management, a team that stayed in place long after Silverman's departure. (Among this group was a new Entertainment President, Brandon Tartikoff, who would help get NBC back on top by 1985.)  

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