NBC Universal TV: Going NUTS: Group Faces Beating Self With Own Production

May 30, 2005  •  Post A Comment

It took just half a TV season for the challenges NBC Universal now faces as owner of both a major production studio and a broadcast network to play out in prime time.

Fox’s medical drama “House,” a production of NBC Universal Television Studios, has become a bona fide hit in its post-“American Idol” Tuesday 9 p.m. time slot, paving the way for NBC Universal to reap gains if the show makes it to syndication.

At the same time, however, “House’s” success is hurting NBC in a way. Viewers who might otherwise watch “Scrubs” and the NBC Universal-owned “The Office” on NBC during “House’s” time period are instead tuning in to Fox.

Deciphering whether Tuesday night works for NBC Universal will be a good clue as to whether NBC’s acquisition a year ago of Universal Television Production ultimately works for NBC Universal’s bottom line, said one Hollywood talent agent.

“‘House’ is doing great for [Fox], so there might be some back-end [for NBC Universal], but it takes away from ‘Scrubs’ and ‘The Office’ on Tuesday nights,” he said. “Is the loss to NBC on the network mitigated by the [potential] gain of ‘House’ in syndication on [Fox]? The answer to that question is the essence of the merger.”

NBC Universal Television Studio President Angela Bromstad said no matter what Fox runs at 9 p.m., it will compete for viewers with NBC, so owning the competing series is a good thing. “Any show is going to get hurt in that time period,” she said of NBC, “and it’s better it’s a show we own.”

The consolidation of NBC Studios and Universal Television Production was different from the merger of other NBC and Universal properties in one significant way. Whereas most divisions settled on one executive to lead its charge following the acquisition, Ms. Bromstad, former NBC Studios executive VP, and David Kissinger, who was president of Universal Television Productions before the acquisition, were made co-heads of NBC Universal Television Studio, known as NUTS.

Mr. Kissinger and Ms. Bromstad each entered a one year contract in May 2004. Last week, Mr. Kissinger moved on to run NBC late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien’s production company, Conaco, which has a deal with NUTS. Ms. Bromstad is staying to run NUTS on her own.

Industry insiders wag that the exit of the former Universal honcho is emblematic of NUTS’ strategic direction, that the unit will operate much more like the dedicated NBC production arm that NBC Studios was than the independent supplier to all outlets that Universal was.

Ms. Bromstad said her mandate as a studio head is primarily to “focus on NBC,” but that the company “would like to have at least one successful show at all the other networks and some of the cable outlets.”

NUTS is not facing a full-blown identity crisis, but it does appear to be in for a considerable amount of evolution.

“Separating between the network and studio is really a fine line to walk,” she said. “You want to be their best supplier, but you don’t want to lose the independence and integrity for your producers. You still want them to feel protected, and let them feel their creative vision is not just completely dictated by the network.”

Comparing the last development season to this one, NUTS has fewer pilots but does have product at three of the six networks, which brings NUTS no closer to Ms. Bromstad’s goal of having series at all the broadcasters.

For the 2004-05 TV season the pre-merger Universal had three network pickups: “House,” which will be back for 2005-06; the midseason “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” which NBC canceled; and the failed ABC comedy “Complete Savages” from Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions.

Pre-merger NBC Studios had the failed NBC dramas “LAX,” “Hawaii” and “Medical Investigation.”

For the 2005-06 development season, NUTS had two comedy pilots at ABC and one comedy project each at Fox and The WB. At NBC, NUTS produced or co-produced four of the network’s six drama pilots and 10 of the 15 comedy projects that were in consideration for next season.

For the 2005-06 season NUTS has a midseason order for the single-camera improvisational comedy “Sons & Daughters” at ABC, while at NBC, the alien drama “Fathom” and the midseason comedy “Thick and Thin,” starring Jessica Capshaw, were both picked up.

Still, Ms. Bromstad said, the studio has been able to sell to other outlets, particularly cable, with projects that were first pitched to the network but didn’t fit on the NBC broadcast schedule. For example, the company recently got a 13-episode order at Comedy Central for a project first pitched at NBC, she said.

“It’s so rewarding not to flush that down the toilet,” she said.

NUTS also is charged with providing content for the company’s cable networks, particularly USA Network, Bravo and Sci Fi, the home of the surprise hit “Battlestar Galactica,” which is based on a 1970s Universal property and initially developed by the pre-merger Universal Television Productions.

“Our big goal is a companion for [USA’s] ‘Monk’ and another hit for Sci Fi,” she said.