Trio Shrinks to Fit Role in NBCU

Dec 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By most current measures, the show is over for cable network Trio.

Since NBC acquired the U.S. entertainment assets of Vivendi Universal Entertainment in May, onetime media darling Trio has been reduced to the network equivalent of a boarded-up property, a haunted house that NBC representatives rarely discuss or promote.

Industry insiders have predicted the network’s demise since the merger. Just now coming into focus is, however, how far the channel has fallen since Entertainment Weekly named Trio the “It Network” last year, along with the story of why the network has unraveled.

In recent months, most Trio executives have shifted their affiliation to Bravo or left the company. The channel is no longer directly taking pitches from creatives or ordering new pilots. Between January and July, the network put out 21 press releases; since July, only six. While fellow former Universal networks Sci Fi and USA Network have flourished under NBC’s wing-both have enjoyed record-setting ratings years-Trio (which has never been rated) has fallen off the public’s radar. Most notably, NBC renegotiated distribution deals with DirecTV recently for its other networks but not for Trio-whose carriage on the satellite service will collapse Dec. 31, taking more than half of Trio’s 20 million subscribers along with it.

NBC executives continue to deny Trio is, to use a title coined by its signature series, “brilliant but canceled.” At the same time, they appear to labor to avoid inspiring optimism.

“We’ve changed the business model for Trio,” said Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Cross-Platform Strategy. “We’ve reduced costs; we’ve combined a lot of the staff under Lauren [Zalaznick] at Bravo. Every day that went by we lost quite a bit of money off this network. If there’s no hope for distribution, it’s hard to see how there’s any future … but the future is still undecided. Clearly the brand has some equity.”

NBC has hinged its support of Trio on the network’s ability to gain distribution. Though NBC Universal executives said the lapse of Trio’s DirecTV carriage was unavoidable, considering the company’s vast resources industry insiders said they doubt NBC Universal was powerless to stop the subscriber drain.

“It’s not officially dead, but as close as you can get,” said an executive close to Trio and NBC.

Media agency executives said Trio is part of the offerings that USA Networks’ sales executives pitch to agencies. But one top ad buyer said, “They have not been aggressive about ad sales at all.”

Ms. Zalaznick, Trio’s president, reportedly tried to convince NBC to spare the network after NBC expanded her duties to include Bravo last summer. Asked whether that fight continues today, she said, “I think the evidence speaks for itself-we’re alive and well and on the air.”

“From a content standpoint, Trio is very hard to turn away from,” she said. “It is respected and treated like a real content-generating service. On the business side of it, it is really under discussion and debate.”

The network is treated like a “content-generating service,” but not like a stand-alone network. A recent original program, “The Christmas Special Christmas Special,” was developed and slated for Trio. The show was put on Bravo instead, then tossed to Trio for reruns. This is the opposite of the strategy NBC has used in cross-promoting content for its other cable networks since the merger. Typically when a channel has a potential hit, the program airs on its home network. Then choice reruns appear on a bigger corporate sibling to entice viewers to the smaller channel.

In the case of “Christmas Special,” Ms. Zalaznick pointed out that unlike the other cross-promoted shows, the special was not an ongoing series. “I really just saw an opportunity for Bravo-who had not made an investment in holiday-themed programming,” she said. “It was truly synergistic benefit where it could be seen by 80 million instead of 20 million.”

This naturally raises the question of whether Trio is needed by NBC if the programming is so compatible with that of Bravo, whose distribution is so much greater. Ms. Zalaznick admitted Trio is no longer ordering new pilots at all-for series or specials.

Some insiders theorized that regardless of whether NBC intended to keep or sell the channel, the company allowed Trio’s value to drop through neglect and lost subscribers. Doing so would not only mean NBC Universal could divest itself of Trio, but essentially salt the bandwidth where it once stood so it can never rise again under new ownership to threaten like-branded Bravo. NBC refutes the theory.

Both brands celebrate pop culture, but with different styles. This spring Bravo will undergo a rebranding to freshen its image, Mr. Gaspin said.

One NBC insider said the devolving of Trio has been as bewildering for employees as it has been to observers. The insider said the latest speculation is that the company has found a way to let the network soldier on, perhaps, as Ms. Zalaznick put it, as simply a “content-generating service” for Bravo. Another theory has Trio being used as a platform for Universal Studios library titles.

“Every month we’re told there will be a decision by the end of the month,” the source said. “Everybody [at Trio] has either put on the Bravo hat, or has left. It’s a big mystery.”

Ms. Zalaznick maintained the network’s fate is still uncertain and there are ongoing top-level discussions about the future. But when asked whether she could name any recent, factual evidence of Trio having a real future or NBC investing in the network, the Trio president paused a moment and said, “No.”

Wayne Friedman contributed to this report.