America's oldest network built its reputation on running megahits like The Cosby Show and Friends at 8 p.m. which is what made a recent announcement by Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal Television Group, so stunning. In addition to cutting about 700 jobs and $750 million in expenses from his company, Zucker floated the idea of paring back scripted comedies and dramas in the 8-9 p.m. hour and replacing them with inexpensive reality programming. (In other words, dim the Friday Night Lights and let's make a Deal or No Deal.) His point: NBC can no longer justify pouring millions into scripted shows that advertisers won't spend money on and few people watch.
Indeed, most of NBC's new 8 p.m. shows like 30 Rock (which costs roughly $1.6 million per episode) and Lights ($2.6 million an episode) are expensive propositions with little payoff, averaging 6.9 million and 6.6 million viewers, respectively. ''Most of the competition is already running unscripted shows at 8 p.m. anyway,'' Zucker told EW in an interview after his Oct. 19 shocker. ''It's just acknowledging what is going on in most of the industry. I don't think the viewer will notice much change at all.''
We figured he'd say that. For years, the broadcast networks hoped that viewers were asleep at the dial while they systematically slashed programming to save money. First, they basically ceded kids' shows to Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel; then Saturday-night programming got the ax. (Parts of Friday evening are beginning to look like a wasteland too.) Next, weekly original made-for-TV movies vanished. The whole 8-9 p.m. hour seems like the logical next step, right?
Zucker hinted at that possibility in The Wall Street Journal by saying ''this is going to be a slow evolution, but there's a reason that two of the five broadcast networks [Fox and The CW] program two hours of prime time each night instead of three.'' Zucker denies that NBC will ever relinquish an hour of prime time altogether, but there's no denying that the network, stuck in third place, is throwing up its hands. ''This seems to be a trial balloon to cut costs, but evidence suggests that people do watch scripted programming at 8,'' says Lowell Singer, a media analyst for research firm Cowen and Co. ''Two of the biggest hits of the year ABC's Ugly Betty, CBS' Jericho air at 8 p.m. So the idea that you can't program at 8 doesn't jibe.''
Nor does the idea that advertisers are wary of shows in that time slot. Viewership levels have remained consistent for the past five years, and the show that generates the most revenue of any broadcast series is American Idol, which airs at...you guessed it: 8 p.m. But Zucker says that Idol plays into his point it is, after all, a nonscripted show, one of nine in the last six years that have achieved gonzo ratings among the all-important 18-49 demographic. Says Zucker, ''Reality shows are what the audience expects to find in the 8 p.m. time slot.''
Sort of. Unscripted series do make up 83 percent of ABC's 8 p.m. slate, but only 33 percent of CBS'. "This is not a trend," counters CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. "Our success from the fall season is Jericho, and it works great at 8. We're up 50 percent in viewers in the time period. Our goal is still about producing great scripts and building them into successful long-term series."
That's the case for any network including NBC which is why many people think Zucker is exaggerating. "My initial reaction was, 'That obviously can't be true,'" says the head of one TV studio. "They're going to put more reality up against the kingpins, like Dancing With the Stars and Survivor? I think their intention will be to put fewer scripted shows from 8 to 9 p.m., but believe me, if they stumble on the next great comedy or drama, they'll air it at 8."
So what prompted Zucker to make such a bold proclamation? NBC lost a reported $800 million in ad sales last year, and Zucker who has long been considered an heir apparent to his boss, Bob Wright, chairman of NBC Universal needs to recoup some cash if he's to become a viable replacement. As viewers of 30 Rock know, GE, NBC's parent company, can be a demanding taskmaster. Whatever his motive, the pronouncement accomplished one thing: People are talking about the network. For his part, Zucker remains surprisingly coy. "I know this has been blown out of proportion," he says. "I'm not that naive." Agreed.