The Little Picture – What’s next for NBC: `Must-Bleed TV’?

May 21, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Nobody seemed to know what to make of that cryptic “Sopranos” memo NBC President Bob Wright sent out the other week. But I smelled the unmistakable odor of red herring.
The memo, mailed to 50 NBC executives and studio heads who do business with the network, was attached to a tape of “The Sopranos” in which a troubled associate of Tony Soprano beats his mistress to death in an alley with his fists, his feet and a guardrail.
In his memo, Mr. Wright asked his colleagues to “help think about an issue that I believe is having a major impact on our business-the nature of the content in HBO’s `The Sopranos.”’ While noting the overwhelming critical support for “The Sopranos,” he added, “It is a show which we could not and would not air on NBC because of the violence, language and nudity.”
By enclosing what he felt was a “particularly tough” episode of the show, Mr. Wright said he hoped it would provoke a discussion “about the show and how it impacts mainstream entertainment and NBC in particular.” He concluded, “I believe we need to give serious thought to this issue.”
Mr. Wright was not the first person to single out this episode. “Sopranos” creator David Chase rushed a rough copy of the episode to TV critics in February so we could watch it before writing our advances for the show’s second season. Even though it wasn’t scheduled to air until a month later, I led my review with that episode. Other TV critics mentioned it, too.
The thing you notice about that murder scene is not just the cruelty toward the victim, but toward the viewer. The scene goes on forever. The camera captures every blow-and there are a lot of them. You have to either turn away or be transfixed by the sick misogyny of it all. I’ll bet you didn’t turn away, because you couldn’t believe this wacko mobster, played to perfection by Joe Pantoliano, would come unhinged this fast. The effect was blood-curdling even by “Sopranos” standards, and that’s saying something.
So yeah, nothing like this could air on NBC. So what? It could certainly air on a number of other pay-cable networks, including Showtime, Starz! or any of their two dozen spinoff channels. What does Mr. Wright mean when he says the show’s content is “having a major impact on our business”?
Notice that Mr. Wright didn’t enclose copies of “Oz” or “America Undercover” or something from Showtime, like “Soul Food.” Aren’t those shows too hot for NBC as well? But they’re not “The Sopranos.” In the eyes of everyone but Emmy voters, Mr. Chase’s mordant mob fantasy has not been equaled by any other program on pay or regular television. “The West Wing” is the only show I routinely hear mentioned in the same breath with “The Sopranos.”
Now we can start to divine the true meaning of Mr. Wright’s memo. Last week the seven broadcast networks rolled out their fall lineups, stocked with (thank God) scripted comedies and dramas. The next “West Wing” could be in that batch of premieres. Or not. Perhaps later this year we’ll be treated to the next “Sopranos” instead. We don’t know if it will appear on HBO or Showtime, but we do know this: It won’t air on any NBC-branded network, because NBC doesn’t have an adult-oriented, pay-cable outlet.
Now consider: HBO aired a critically acclaimed interview show this spring called “On the Record With Bob Costas.” Mr. Costas is not an HBO personality. He’s an NBC personality on loan from the network.
That’s funny. Didn’t HBO start up a critically acclaimed newsmagazine called “Real Sports,” featuring a then-NBC host named Bryant Gumbel?
Do you see where I’m going with this?
I think Bob Wright is jealous of AOL Time Warner, Viacom and Encore because they own subscriber-supported cable channels and he doesn’t.
And it’s gotten his competitive juices flowing. Actually, from what I’ve read of the guy, his competitive juices are always flowing, so maybe now they’re spewing.
Because HBO, unlike NBC, carries no commercials, it doesn’t have to face the dilemma of keeping a quality show or preserving good will with sponsors. I don’t recall ever getting a press release from HBO bragging about numbers for “The Larry Sanders Show,” yet thanks to its many accolades from critics, and all those Emmy nominations, it was the network’s highest-profile show. That helped keep the show on the air for years and allowed its creators-who were legendary for rewriting episodes in last-minute bursts of genius-the kind of artistic freedom they’d never have anywhere else.
Pay cable also has an unfair distribution edge. Counting CNBC, MSNBC and Pax, NBC has four potential outlets for its programming. HBO has nine, including several opposite-coast feeds so that if you missed “The Sopranos” on Eastern time you can pick it up three hours later from the West Coast. HBO also segregates content into niche groupings, such as HBO Family and HBO Latino, a luxury any advertiser-driven network would kill to have.
The hidden agenda behind Bob Wright’s memo isn’t the nature of the content on HBO. Nor the quality-Mr. Wright knows a “Sopranos” is a once-in-a-decade show. But with a pay-cable outlet, he could compete with HBO for programming, keep his most talented people from moonlighting for a rival and make parent company GE a boatload of money. (By my math, if ESPN charges $1.45 per household after its latest outrageous rate hike, it still won’t rake in a third of the revenue that HBO does.)
GE wields enormous clout. It can-and will-push more aggressively into cable TV in the future and could be the company best-positioned to take advantage of the new digital broadcast standard. Which means that there may be a channel branded with the NBC logo in the not-too-distant future that bears some resemblance to HBO.
And the “Sopranos” tape is the icebreaker.
Remember, you read it here first.