November 01, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

Even if Will Ferrell hadn’t left ”Saturday Night Live,” NBC might have had to stop making fun of obsequious ”Inside the Actor’s Studio” host James Lipton. That’s because, thanks to a deal announced yesterday, NBC is spending $1.25 billion in cash and stock to buy Bravo, the basic-cable outlet where Lipton is the most recognizable personality. Lipton may command a tiny audience (Bravo’s Nielsen numbers average around 275,000 viewers), but his show and the other sorta artsy fare on his channel are suddenly NBC assets that finally give the broadcaster a presence in the basic-cable entertainment business.

While NBC has two cable news counterparts (MSNBC and CNBC), it’s the last of the big four networks to partner with a basic-cable entertainment channel. (ABC has ABC Family, Fox has FX, and CBS has such sister channels as MTV and Nickelodeon.) As with the other Big Four networks, NBC can use Bravo as an outlet for quick reruns of shows it owns outright, like ”Will & Grace” or ”Hidden Hills,” thus offsetting production costs. It also gets access to an additional audience of what NBC spokespeople, talking to the Washington Post, call Bravo’s ”desirable demographic” of ”upscale” viewers, the sort that NBC already delivers to advertisers for shows like ”The West Wing” and ”Frasier.” Still, it’s not a huge number of extra viewers, and they skew old, the Post reports, older than the 18-to-49 group that advertisers crave. The typical Bravo viewer is apparently more like James Lipton than Jennifer Aniston.

Still, NBC needs to be in this arena because everyone else is already there, says Tom DeCabia, executive vice president at PHD USA, a media-buying firm. ”It’s very important for NBC to get in that game where everyone else is going,” he tells EW.com, arguing that the networks have to look beyond broadcast viewership alone. ”The audience size is so fragmented that you can’t put all your eggs in one basket anymore. Everybody’s looking to expand their empire.”

NBC also gets an outlet for programming that’s too risqué or sophisticated for the network. NBC entertainment president Jeff Zucker tells the New York Times that NBC is shooting the upcoming series ”Kingpin,” a ”Sopranos”-like tale of a drug lord, in two versions, one for the network, and a less tame one for cable. DeCabia notes that, when dealing with movie studios to buy TV-rights packages, NBC will be able to buy ”art-house” movies as well as more mainstream Hollywood fare. Nonetheless, Bravo remains a basic, not premium cable channel, so it’s not that much racier than broadcast TV; just take a look at Bravo’s sanitized reruns of HBO’s ”The Larry Sanders Show.”

Don’t expect programming to flow the other way, DeCabia says. ”I don’t think they’re going to cross it over to the network,” he says. Still, one could imagine, say, NBC occasionally borrowing Lipton to fawn over celebrities on ”Today,” or maybe to anchor the network’s red-carpet coverage at the Golden Globes. Just don’t expect him to be allowed to ask Matt LeBlanc what his favorite curse word is.

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