It’s too early to dub it the Nothing But Cheers network, but programming woes at now-third-place NBC are massive. With Sam & Co. its only sure thing in the top 10 and Bill Cosby gone from the Thursday lineup, NBC seems a shadow of the strutting peacock it was two seasons ago, when it was crowned No. 1 for a sixth consecutive year.
NBC chief Warren Littlefield’s attempt to capture younger viewers with such shows as Rhythm & Blues, Here and Now, and The Round Table hasn’t paid off. Jay Leno has failed to summon a youth movement to The Tonight Show. Meanwhile, CBS’ The Golden Palace (formerly The Golden Girls), dropped by NBC last season, is doing so well against its old network that NBC has decided to scrap its competition — a new reality series ironically titled What Happened?
Ad execs see NBC’s prospects as grim and privately speculate that Littlefield may soon be looking for another job. But NBC’s vice president of program planning and scheduling, Preston Beckman, feels the network’s losses were inevitable. ”We’re paying the price for holding on to number one maybe longer than we should have,” he says. ”We kept a lot of shows that were very expensive to keep.” Beckman does offer examples of successful shots at the advertiser-friendly 18-to-49 group: Teen hits like Fresh Prince and Blossom look healthy, and Seinfeld — though losing ground to ABC’s Home Improvement — provides the type of audience the network wants.
Still, the reshuffling of NBC’s Friday schedule — in addition to What Happened? it dropped Final Appeal — indicates a serious case of nerves. While Beckman hopes the numbers will improve, he admits the audience losses hit hard. ”I’d be crazy if I said it isn’t painful,” he says. Talk about reality TV.