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Plucking the peacock network

October 22, 2006

THERE ARE TOO MANY GOOD TV shows chasing too few viewers. That, in a nutshell, explains why NBC Universal announced plans to slash spending on its TV, movie and news operations, in part by replacing costly dramas and sitcoms with relatively inexpensive reality-TV and game shows from 8 to 9 p.m.

Last week's move comes after three consecutive quarters of diminishing cash flow at the network, reflecting its struggle to launch hit shows in the post-"must-see TV" era. With no more "Friends" or "Frasier" to hook viewers early in the evening, NBC has climbed no higher than third in the weekly prime-time rankings behind CBS and ABC.

The peacock network had hoped to reverse its fortunes this fall by launching a bunch of highly touted and critically acclaimed shows, including "Friday Night Lights" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Although executives say they're pleased with how most are performing so far, only one, "Heroes," has been a clear success.

It's not that viewers have tuned out high-quality TV at 8 p.m. "Ugly Betty" on ABC and "House" on Fox have both done well this year at that hour, and "Lost" was a hit for ABC two years ago at 8 p.m. The larger challenge for networks is that fewer people watch TV at 8 and 8:30 p.m. than from 9 to 11 p.m., and more channels are competing for those viewers.

Making matters worse is the increase in ways for people to watch programs on demand instead of at their scheduled times. Shows in a given time slot compete not only against each other but against whatever's stored on a TiVo or similar video recorder and on-demand cable and Internet offerings. So not only is the amount of good-quality programming at an all-time high, technology is making it increasingly accessible.

Looking at the shrinking potential audience and increasing competition, NBC decided it no longer made sense to spend heavily on three hours of TV a night and decided instead to feature game shows like "Deal or No Deal." There simply is less room for big bets that don't pay off quickly, but NBC may just be surrendering the field to others with a better feel for the kind of dramas and sitcoms people want to watch at 8 p.m. Just a few years ago, ABC tried to cut back on scripted programs in favor of what was then a juggernaut of a game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," only to plummet in the ratings. Its ultimate salvation was a bunch of great new scripted shows such as "Lost," all of which now generate extra income through Internet and DVD sales.

Hence the quandary for the networks -- blockbuster shows are becoming more valuable, but there will be more worthy, expensive shows that turn out to be busts. It is, like more and more of our economy, a competition with ever-larger risks.

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