NBC Jumps the Gun

NBC, the peacock network, is getting plucked.

The network's former co-chairman, Ben Silverman, was shown the door after several years of disastrous lineups and dismal ratings. None of NBC's new fall shows have made an impression on viewers. Many returning veterans, including Heroes and Law & Order, have shed huge chunks of their audiences. And The Jay Leno Show, airing every weeknight at 10 p.m., has taken spots once reserved for scripted dramas while posting tiny and dwindling ratings.

Where's GE in all of this?
Even the network's ownership is doubt. As French media conglomerate Vivendi (OTC: VIVDY.PK) considers selling its 20% stake of parent company NBC Universal, co-owner General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) is reportedly mulling a purchase or joint venture offer for the network and its sister studio from Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) . If Vivendi sells its stake, but no deal with Comcast materializes, the CEO of NBC Universal has said that "a number of possible things could happen".

Feeling left behind
Despite all this, NBC apparently has cash to burn. After spending the money to produce new episodes, it's just decided to cancel the forthcoming second season of a critically acclaimed (if admittedly low-rated) drama series ... before a single installment even airs.

L.A. cop drama Southland aired seven episodes last spring. Critics liked the show, produced by John Wells from ER and The West Wing, though viewers seemed lukewarm at best. Still, NBC made the surprising decision to renew the show for fall, ordering -- and paying for -- 13 more episodes.

But six episodes into filming, before the show could even premiere, NBC has suddenly and surprisingly cancelled Southland. According to an interview with cast member Michael Cudlitz, the network screened the first four episodes, and deemed them "too dark." (Because, what, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is all sunshine and puppies?)

In the process, the network has royally angered Wells, the producer involved with two of its biggest commercial and critical hits of the past decade. "I'm disappointed that NBC no longer has the time periods available to support the kind of critically acclaimed series that was for so many years a hallmark of their success," Wells said in a statement last Thursday.

If NBC didn't like the show, the network shouldn't have paid millions to renew it. And having paid those millions, it definitely shouldn't squander them by never airing a single episode. With its ratings in the tank, parent company GE muddling through a bad year, and with the growing likelihood that it'll be put up for sale, the last thing NBC needs is to run around like a chicken -- er, peacock -- with its head cut off.

What now?
Luckily for Wells, cable's TNT has been building a brand around cop shows like his, and both the network and Southland's production company, Warner Bros., are owned by Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) . Reports last week suggested Wells and TNT were in negotiations about the show's future. If Southland does get picked up by TNT, and succeeds even by cable's more modest ratings standards, it could be yet another embarrassment for NBC.

And the next time Wells gets an idea for a potential hit drama, guess where he probably won't be taking it? Worse yet for NBC, Wells just got elected president of the Writers Guild of America's West Coast division, putting him in a powerful position of influence over other creators of potential new series. If Wells gets vocal enough about his own bad experience, he may steer his fellow showrunners away from shopping possible future hits to NBC.

The network's itchy trigger finger when it comes to cancellation isn't just wasteful and alienating; it's potentially short-sighted. NBC's legendary hits Cheers and Seinfeld muddled through a season or two of low ratings before finding massive audiences and long-running success.

Worse yet, the network's Jay Leno experiment, which may have contributed to squeezing Southland off the schedule, may win the battle for NBC, but lose the war. The Jay Leno Show is cheaper to produce, and thus more profitable, than the higher-rated dramas it's replaced in NBC's lineup. But its lousy ratings are reportedly driving down viewership for NBC affiliates' local newscasts, angering the stations who carry the network's programming. Viewers fleeing Leno don't seem to be coming back in late night for new Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien, either.

The apparent panic and indecision that seem to have driven Southland's cancellation, and NBC's outright failure in the ratings in general, may be sweet news for Comcast shareholders hoping for a steal of a deal. But it won't do General Electric (or Vivendi) any favors if it drives down the sale price they're able to command for the once-mighty network. Unless NBC gets its act together, this peacock's goose could be cooked.

What do Fools think about the possible spin-off of NBC? Please leave comments below!

Fool online editor Nathan Alderman watches too much TV. He holds no financial position in any of the companies mentioned here, and has never seen an episode of Southland. The Fool's disclosure policy wonders what Cliff Clavin would think of all this.


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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 21, 2009, at 3:20 PM, rebozo2 wrote:

    It's sad that a network which was home to so many

    top notch dramas and comedies has so bought into

    'discount' entertainment and lowers hope for quality

    entertainment. The 'reality' shows, which have

    blossomed like so many mushrooms on the cow

    patties, have decreased financial outlays, but what a

    way to squander a network. It probably won't happen

    but wouldn't it be nice if someone with a dedication

    to quality and a doable game plan for profit were to

    buy NBC? I can dream, can't I?

  • Report this Comment On October 21, 2009, at 3:27 PM, Turfscape wrote:

    GE needs to exit the entertainment field. There is no cross-industry benefit for them to hold onto this cash-needy division. A dollar invested in NBC will continually yield less than a dollar invested in GE Medical Systems. Why not cut the cord, get whatever cash you can and ramp up production on innovations in engines or health care?

  • Report this Comment On October 21, 2009, at 4:25 PM, SkeeDaddy2 wrote:

    Under Jeff Immelt, GE has steadily lost market share in many divisions, especially entertainment. It's amazing to me that their board hasn't thrown him under the bus by now. NBC is just another failure he can add to his growing list of disasters.

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