The flood of reports that GE is looking to spin off NBC-Universal and give Comcast control of half of the company doesn’t exactly come as a shock if you consider the myriad of problems that continue to plague the entertainment division. The movie division has endured a horrible box office run of late (Land of the Lost, Bruno and Funny People all underperformed for the studio this summer) so rumors have been floating for months that Universal Pictures’ co-chairmen David Linde and Marc Schmuger would be replaced. And though the ailing TV division did a little housecleaning of its own this summer by ousting Chairman Ben Silverman, the situation remains dire for the No. 3-ranked NBC. Though the network’s new president, Angela Bromstad, has a solid reputation in the industry, she’s yet to premiere a show that’s cracked the Top 20. Only the new drama Mercy (8.4 million) is showing signs of life, but it’s ranked No. 39 among all new and returning shows. The promising new comedy Community starring Chevy Chase is only averaging 5.4 million viewers, while the embattled drama Heroes is struggling at No. 59 with a mere 6.1 million. The Jay Leno Show may be helping to keep the lights on at 10 p.m. (after an auspicious debut, his audience has settled around the 6 million mark), but the talk show has yet to win its time slot and has done little to bolster the industry’s confidence in NBC. One TV studio president said to EW, “They’ve given up valuable real estate. They’re making themselves less of a network.”
And the hits just keep coming: tragedy struck the network’s midseason hopeful Parenthood when it was revealed that Maura Tierney had to quit due to her ongoing treatment for breast cancer. And just today, it was reported by Variety that Day One – a high-concept disaster drama from Heroes scribe Jesse Alexander – will air as a four-hour miniseries instead of a midseason series. Cost cutting is presumed to be the reason. Thank God for old dependable football; if it wasn’t for the network’s lucrative contract with the NFL for Sunday games, the network would still be mired in fourth place.
From a business perspective, a Comcast/NBC Universal deal makes a lot of sense: unlike GE, Comcast is all about entertainment content (holdings include E!, the Golf Channel and regional sports networks) and CEO Brian Roberts has long wanted a movie and television studio to augment his massive cable empire. But no matter how the deal turns out – and reports seem to change hourly – what’s most intriguing is how this will eventually affect CEO Jeff Zucker. Having swiftly risen through the company, the 44-year-old mogul earned his wunderkind reputation early by helping to to transform The Today Show in the early ’90s and convincing Donald Trump to do The Apprentice. But his tenure over prime time was soon tarnished with plenty of high-profile failures, from a failed attempt to spinoff Friends‘ star Matt LeBlanc into Joey (poo-pooed by critics, the comedy didn’t last beyond two seasons) to a sour deal with DreamWorks to produce the poorly-received cartoon Father of the Pride. The industry scratched its collective head when Zucker talked about airing cheap reality programming in the 8 o’ clock hour and when the once golden network slid from first to fourth place. Still, Zucker moved up the corporate ladder (he added the cable division to his fiefdom before becoming CEO in 2007) and continued to make odd decisions – like giving former agent-turned-producer Silverman the chairmanship (he lasted two years) and rewarding Conan O’Brien the hosting job on The Tonight Show. Though Zucker deserves kudos for preventing the competition from stealing Leno, O’Brien is not nearly the juggernaut at 11:30 that Leno was; David Letterman beat O’Brien in adults 18-49 and adults 25-54 during the first week of the 2009-10 season.
Not surprisingly, NBC is not commenting about anything. Stay tuned. — Lynette Rice contributed to this report