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Trio Sees Its Potential Viewership Take a Hit

The hip cable channel is being dropped by DirecTV, and NBC Universal executives have not commented publicly on its future.

December 27, 2004|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Cable channel Trio's signature show is "Brilliant But Cancelled," which lambastes TV networks for pulling the plug on cutting edge television.

Now the irreverent channel may be getting the hook itself.

On Saturday Trio will be dropped by satellite television giant DirecTV Group Inc., which supplies nearly two-thirds of the 20 million homes where the digital channel is available.

That will leave the NBC Universal-owned channel in only 8 million homes -- not nearly enough, experts say, to ensure its survival.

"It's just a matter of time," said Larry Gerbrandt, media analyst with AlixPartners in Los Angeles. "Once the stampede has started, it's very difficult to get the cows back in the corral."

General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal inherited Trio in May as part of its $14-billion acquisition of the film, TV and theme park assets of France's Vivendi Universal. NBC Universal executives have been mostly mum on their plans for the channel.

Launched in Toronto by North America TV, a Canadian Broadcasting Corp.-backed venture, Trio has become a darling of pop culture denizens. The 10-year-old channel has brought back to life "Classic Dave," old David Letterman talk shows from his NBC years, and the hard-luck clay figure Mr. Bill from "Saturday Night Live." (This month it aired "Ho, Ho, No! It's Mr. Bill's Christmas Special.")

Trio set a goal nearly two years ago of becoming the "premier network devoted to popular culture." It launched such original programs as a mock documentary called "Pilot Season" that roasted the TV industry and an election series this year titled "How's Your News?" produced by the team behind the raunchy comedy "South Park."

The show "Brilliant But Cancelled" unearthed skeletons from network graveyards, including the jazz pianist-private eye drama "Johnny Staccato," which aired on NBC in 1959-60, and producer Steven Bochco's 1990 police musical "Cop Rock," which lasted four months on ABC.

NBC Universal cut the channel's programming budget of nearly $10 million, stopped ordering original shows and shuffled a third of the nearly 25-member staff to the company's more mainstream channel, Bravo. Trio President Lauren Zalaznick now runs both Bravo and Trio.

In a statement, NBC Universal said it was committed to programming Trio and its website for loyal viewers and cable partners.

"NBC Universal continues to evaluate the future of the network in relation to its overall digital strategy," the company said.

Trio is available through digital cable services offered by Comcast Corp., Time Warner Inc., Cox Communications Inc. and Adelphia Communications Corp., among others, according to NBC Universal.

Sources familiar with the DirecTV deal said NBC Universal last summer agreed to give up the space occupied by Trio to win a more lucrative agreement to carry its USA Network, the Sci Fi channel, Bravo and Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Mun2.

Also important to NBC Universal was securing space on DirecTV for the company's much-hyped high-definition platform for the Summer Olympics in Athens.

That wrangling between DirecTV and NBC Universal illustrated the industry's high-stakes horse trading for distribution. Satellite and cable TV companies -- once flush with shelf space -- are increasingly concerned about reaching their capacity and thus have become more selective in the channels that they carry.

"Right now, the hardest thing to come by is distribution on cable and satellite," analyst Gerbrandt said. "There are a couple hundred channels that are looking for carriage, or to launch in the first place."

Attracting advertisers has long been a problem, said Shari Anne Brill, programming director for the advertising buying firm Carat USA. Since the channel has limited distribution, Nielsen Media Research doesn't measure its ratings. That makes it difficult for the channel to sell ad time.

"They've had some really good ideas, but maybe they were too hip for the room," Brill said. "But they're in a horrible Catch-22. How do you get distribution if you don't have viewers? And how do you get viewers if you don't have distribution?"

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