What NBC Needs

Nov 28, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Earlier this month Kevin Reilly appeared almost evangelistic in comments about the freshman family show “Three Wishes.”

“This is an uplifting and emotionally engaging show that really captures the joy of people helping people,” Mr. Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment, said in a statement. “We’re pleased with the growth this series has shown and encouraged by the response from both viewers and critics who have rallied behind ‘Three Wishes’ and praised it as a quality family show.”

The statement went on to say that NBC had greenlighted an additional six episodes of the Friday night series, in which contemporary Christian singing superstar Amy Grant and her team grant wishes, both big and small, to the residents of various locales.

Then, days later, word came that NBC had reversed itself and was not ordering six more episodes of the show. The reason seemed to be twofold, sources said: budget concerns at the network and the fact that CBS had moved “Close to Home” against it, making it more difficult for “Three Wishes” to improve its ratings.

“Wishes” executive producer Andrew Glassman wasn’t happy. “It was a quality show that was scheduled at the wrong time,” he told Daily Variety. “Other networks made bold strategic moves to get sampling [for their shows]. We didn’t have the same support.”

It wasn’t the first time that NBC had tinkered with the nascent series. Last month the network announced it would move “Three Wishes” to Wednesday night, changing places with “E-Ring” for that week. A few days later the network decided it would not do that.

Neither of these incidents reflects well on Mr. Reilly. Why the flip-flops? Is it his own indecision or is it that these decisions get overturned by NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker once he gets wind of them? Whatever the answer, it isn’t good.

Part of what one must do as a network president is be decisive. One industry insider noted that Mr. Reilly has been criticized for failing to make timely programming decisions and for being unable to articulate his decisions to his staff and executive producers, which the insider said are “really bad traits in a creative executive.”

Asked about “Three Wishes,” Mr. Reilly told TelevisionWeek, “‘Three Wishes’ was one of those shows where it was a tricky decision. It’s been very well produced but it has struggled on Friday night. It’s not an easy decision to make. With the exception of ‘Inconceivable’ all of our new series have been renewed. ‘Three Wishes’ is a tricky one. We’re even having conversations now about keeping that show. Unfortunately, it’s not a slam dunk when you’re pulling the numbers [the show has pulled]-Amy Grant has been a dream. There was some confusion. It depends if you want to spin it. We are trying to keep something going.”

Still, the fact is NBC made two very clear announcements about the show and then reversed itself both times.

For NBC and parent General Electric, the stakes are high. The network’s slide from the top has been precipitous. In the category that the network itself has long defined as the only one that matters, adults 18 to 49, NBC has gone from a 5.3 rating with a 13 share in the 2001-02 season to a 3.3 rating with a 9 share thus far this year. In the November sweeps for the first 19 days its ratings are down an astonishing 22 percent from last November.

NBC’s slide has started to translate into real money. During this year’s upfront the company wrote close to $1 billion less than it did last year.

Affiliates are worried that the network’s decline will soon affect one of their most important profit centers, their late local news. Indeed, season to date, NBC’s 10 p.m. shows are down 6 percent in the news-friendly 25 to 54 demo.

For GE, NBC’s decline has to be more than a little disappointing. In a recent issue of Business Week featuring the late management guru Peter Drucker on the cover, there was an anecdote about former GE chief Jack Welch. A meeting between Mr. Welch and Mr. Drucker, soon after Mr. Welch took the reins at GE, convinced Mr. Welch of his life-held GE mantra: that the company would be only in businesses in which it would be No. 1 or No. 2 in its field. If it could not accomplish that, and GE could not fix the problem in a reasonable period, the company would either sell those businesses or shutter them.

By acquiring Universal and combing it with NBC, GE clearly is trying to manage the difficulties of owning a TV network, which by the very nature of the business can have major swings of success and failure that are not necessarily predictable. Mr. Wright has said restoring the network to its former glory could take up to three years.

All of this puts tremendous pressure on NBC Entertainment President Mr. Reilly.

The questions before Jeffrey Immelt, who runs GE, is whether Mr. Reilly is the man for the job, and if the other top personnel and structure at NBC are right as well.

Mr. Reilly returned to NBC in May 2004. He previously had been there as a programming executive and came back as the person primarily responsible for programming the network. Prior to returning to NBC, Mr. Reilly was in charge of programming the FX cable network, where he earned major huzzahs for putting on “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck.”

Immediately Mr. Reilly was in a pressure-cooker. The last of NBC’s long-running sitcom megahits, “Friends,” had just ended its run, and the merger with Universal had just been approved.

“There is no question, looking back on last year, that that was a huge cultural shift for our company,” Mr. Reilly said. “At the same time, we were going through our biggest ratings challenge in a long, long time. That was certainly tough for everybody.”

For months now, rumors have swirled that Mr. Zucker may soon depart the network. Mr. Immelt, for his part, has continually said that he has confidence in both Mr. Zucker and Mr. Reilly.

What NBC does not need is to become dysfunctional in the way that ABC was for so many years. What was clear in James B. Stewart’s book “Disney War” is that top management continually undercut the decisions of those ostensibly in charge of ABC.

A perfect example is the ABC hit “Lost.” The show was championed by former ABC programming executive Lloyd Braun, who later enlisted the support of his cohort, Susan Lyne, according to “Disney War.” But Bob Iger, Stephen McPherson (then head of Touchstone) and Disney topper Michael Eisner all hated the idea of “Lost” as a weekly series, according to the book.

Somehow the show got on the air, but Mr. Braun and subsequently Ms. Lyne lost their jobs. Even after the show premiered to strong ratings and critical acclaim, Mr. Eisner was still blasting the show, telling Mr. Stewart, “Who cares about these people on a desert island?”

Having given Mr. Reilly the reins to run the network, he must become both sure-footed and decisive, and upper management would be wise not to undermine his decisions.

What a successful network president needs, said one talent agent, “is having the time and protection without having to think, ‘Is this the last thing I’m doing?'”

Added another agent, “If you’re so worried about what Jeff Zucker or Bob Wright is going to do, then you don’t do. You can’t succeed.”

The problem with being continually second-guessed, this agent explained, is the fear factor. “Fear is the worst position for an executive to be in, because when you hear something you overthink it. You’re worried about your own job, so you’re trying to guess what someone else will like as opposed to buying what you like. All you have is your ability to hear it, feel it and see if it’s real. But you’ll never be right if [what you’re trying to do is] to guess what [others think is] the right answer.”

Responding to a question about the culture at NBC, Mr. Reilly said, “Ultimately, these jobs have never been about a one-man band. All of the moving parts become very, very important. And there are a lot of different constituencies. You have to lure the
talent and get the creative product into a distribution system that is a means of advertising. It’s always been a group effort. It’s always been a collective medium. I believe in the culture of NBC. Bob Wright does not tinker in creativity. NBC believes in letting people do their jobs.”

As for his challenges to rebuild NBC within Mr. Wright’s timetable, he said, “This is a chess game as much as it is a game of creativity. You can get boxed in by other big hits. That’s part of what NBC enjoyed.

“Year after year competitors would come up with something and say they were going to make a toe-hold on Thursday, but nobody could find any wiggle room there. Frankly, on Sunday night and Wednesday night, we’re dealing with some very challenging competition. It does become difficult to maneuver your schedule.”

One of the other knocks one hears about NBC is that the erstwhile Must-See TV has disintegrated into a network whose brand identity is now the No Brand Company. “That’s the nature of the network business-there’s always the range of shows,” Mr. Reilly said. “Anyone’s brand, to the extent there is one, is defined by a couple of shows. When you have the hits, all’s well with your brand. That’s the mission-get those brand drivers back that define the next generation. Success can be its own challenge-you think you have such strength across the board. You can almost be a little blinded by it, and that’s not unique to NBC.”

As for his future at NBC, and the network’s future, Mr. Reilly is sanguine.

“Sometimes adversity brings out the best” he said. “It’s one of the interesting disconnects-there is a still negative perception out there. The disconnect I’m having is to the extent I read or hear about negativity, I’m actually experiencing what we’re experiencing inside the building-the kind of focus and creativity I was banking on when I came back to NBC.

“Right now we don’t have the rocket fuel to get out of our overall ratings challenge. [But I] feel it coming back in the door. There’s a little bit of a ‘swing to the fences’ attitude right now. The opportunity represents something for the artists. There’s nothing better for an artist to hear than, ‘We need a hit; what do you have?'”

Clearly, Mr. Reilly is talking the talk. Two drama pilots, “Heist,” from feature director Doug Liman (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”), and “Kidnapped,” from Michael Dinner (co-executive producer of “Karen Sisco”), will shoot after the holidays. If Mr. Reilly likes them and thinks they are ready, he said, at least one of them could be on-air next spring. He said he is also working at putting on an original drama next summer.

As yet a third agent who has dealt with Mr. Reilly said, “Is Kevin the best guy who’s ever done the job? Certainly not. Is he the worst guy? Certainly not. He’s doing the best he can in a horrible environment on a ship that’s taking on water pretty fast.”