Sometimes necessity and a painful wallow in fourth place in a field of four is the mother of invention. Today’s MediaPost features an article by David Goetzl about Jeff Zucker’s recent investor speech. During his presentation, Zucker more than hinted about NBC’s future and the programming changes that will play a major role. A key component of the NBC plan is to forge ahead with altering the content landscape that has ruled prime time for decades. It’s inescapable that fragmentation, change in audience tastes, and the shift to consumption of all things online is driving this need for “reinvention”. The Leno “experiment” won’t be an experiment for long.
You can produce a strip, prime time chat show, even with a high cost talent like Leno, for a fraction of the investment required for an hour drama or half hour sitcom. Period. On the “Zucker is wise” front, you have lower cost, less risk of audience rejection of 95% of your original offerings (if they like Leno, they will just keep coming back and NBC can pre-book that), and you get to plant your flag in the “new” 10pm slot with a tried and true brand while others must follow. If broadcast does become the repository for reality and event TV, NBC might reap the rewards of being first to embrace.
On the other side, you give up the major windfall that the occasional hit narrative delivers here and abroad for years and years to come in syndication. NO one will argue that chat is evergreen (though original reality formats may be). I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how the move toward inexpensive programming will balance out against the loss of the annuity of a “Friends” or “Seinfeld”. Part of the answer may be a top to bottom embrace of the need for reinvention of the overall approach to broadcast, cable, and digital and who becomes who in the content zoo. I’m betting on NBC.
If the Leno project works, NBC owns 10pm and has the luxury of exporting the model and success to 8-10 pm. NBC reinvents broadcast prime time. Where do the dramas and quality narrative go? NBC’s cable unit. Their cable outlets have been their success story for years and, under Jeff Gaspin, have become quality content profit centers. There is no reason why FX should own the quality ribbon. Of course, that move will necessitate lower production budgets and the current scripted programming sources will go kicking and screaming. As Zucker mentioned however, lower cost doesn’t have to mean lower quality. Examples of budget and content bravery abound. Lower budgets, lower risk, even bigger windfalls when they find a hit—and the ability to genuinely brand their cable channels.
And what about digital? NBC is banking on Hulu. Fine for now. But if they genuinely want to be the Mother of Reinvention, they must actively pursue a custom strategy for serving the digital landscape. Yes, they will offer their shows on line. Fine. But for a growing and evolving digital generation it won’t be enough to shoehorn “TV” into the content offerings. The audience will increasingly demand customized, personal, quality content that is crafted for who they are, where they consume, how they consume and what they wish to consume. They won’t be sold, won’t be washed over with message, and won’t engage unless you invite them in. No one has the answers yet. But if NBC wants to genuinely lead the way and reap the rewards of audience loyalty, THIS is where the tough work needs to be done. What does the online user between 7 and 11pm want? Has anyone really bothered to find out? That answer will be the linchpin to success.
NBC will figure out the new world of broadcast, it will build on its cable success and we’ll see if it can address digital. If they bother with all three prongs, they will clean everyone’s clock by being the content source that creates the 360 degree, on demand, content and distribution plan that is the future.