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The 800-Pound Peacock

Suddenly, NBC is No. 1 in prime-time, early morning and late night. How the network figured out what America wants to watch.

April 21, 1996|Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

It took just four words from NBC executive Lindy DeKoven last year to send her colleagues sitting inside a corporate office leaping out of their chairs.

"I'm thinking 'Peter Benchley's "The Beast," ' " said DeKoven, NBC's senior vice president of miniseries and motion pictures for television.

"Great!" exclaimed Vince Manze, the network's senior vice president of advertising and promotion. "We love it!" exclaimed John Miller, executive vice president of advertising & promotion and event programming.

Then the two honchos calmed down and asked DeKoven, "What is it?"

When DeKoven explained that she was proposing a movie based on Benchley's bestseller about a horrifying ocean creature that terrorizes a small seaside community, the ideas started flying from Manze and Miller and others inside the office as they brainstormed on ways to turn "The Beast" into a major event of the 1995-96 season.

Those ideas soon took shape in the outline for a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign: huge billboards in Times Square and on Sunset Boulevard. An avalanche of commercials and teasers. Countless buses with placards of a bikini-clad swimmer unaware of the massive tentacles reaching out to grab her. Giant tentacles wrapped around the "Today" show's Windows of the World studio in New York.

Higher corporate powers drew the line at the latter notion. But all the other plans were quickly put in motion. Now executives at NBC and MCA Television Entertainment, the distributor of the four-hour miniseries that premieres April 28, say it is almost impossible to walk down the street or to watch NBC and not see ads for "The Beast." Both NBC and MCA are keeping their fingers crossed that the movie will be a blockbuster.

Elsewhere in the TV industry, however, the long-range planning and the aggressiveness of NBC's "Beast" campaign are seen as the latest examples of how the network itself has come on like a beast in the past two years, using its tentacles of savvy marketing, relentless promotion, smart programming and risk-taking tactics to reclaim the prime-time ratings crown this season that it held through most of the 1980s but then lost in 1992.

With its invincible Thursday night slate, its surging Tuesday night lineup, lavish, heavily promoted projects such as the "Gulliver's Travels" miniseries, "stunts" like the one-hour episode of "Friends" following the Super Bowl and the late-night triumph of "The Tonight Show" leading the way, NBC has reversed itself just two years after languishing in third place among the major TV networks.

Analysts say the network once again has captured the taste of the viewing public much as it did during the 1980s, when a little comedy called "The Cosby Show" carried the network to dizzying heights. CBS overtook NBC during the 1991-92 season and reigned for three years, then was replaced at the top last season by ABC. Now NBC has bounced back with a monster-like vengeance.

And the momentum is so strong that some experts are saying that NBC may be poised to dominate the TV landscape as it did during the '80s.

"The fact that cannot be denied right now is that NBC is the network," said Christine Murtaugh, vice president and group supervisor for the Media Edge, a firm that handles media buying for AT&T and other large advertisers. "They are possibly at the edge of a dynasty, and are so much ahead of ABC right now."

The coronation is not unanimous. Some executives at rival networks say that NBC is a one-night network, with the huge ratings on Thursdays masking lackluster performances from its programs much of the rest of the week. Talk of an imminent dynasty is premature, they contend.

But others say that the television business is cyclical and it is once again NBC's turn to shine.

Said Greg Meidel, chairman of MCA Television Group: "Every network has their day in the sun. NBC knows this. They've been No. 1 before, then they fell out of place. Now they've recaptured it, and with the help of 'Friends' and 'ER,' they've launched this incredible frontal attack. Everything at the network is now breeding on itself."

Industry executives and analysts point out that many of NBC's hottest series, such as "Friends," "ER" and "Frasier," are relatively young shows that have only been on for two or three seasons and have not yet reached their plateau of popularity. Meanwhile, ABC and CBS have to lean heavily on aging warhorses such as "Roseanne," "Home Improvement," "60 Minutes" and "Murphy Brown."

They also say NBC's brand name of "Must See TV" has given it an identity that other networks lack. "Plus, they have this great promotional base on Thursdays, three whole hours where the greatest number of eyes are watching," observes David Janollari, executive vice president of creative affairs for Warner Bros. Television, which produces "Friends" and "ER" for the network. That promotion base has also boosted interest in the non-prime-time parts of NBC's schedule.

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