NBC Faces a Prime-Time Identity Crisis

NBC, the network that dominated TV in the 1980s, will be suffering a severe identity crisis next season.

Gone will be Johnny Carson. Gone will be "The Cosby Show." Gone will be "The Golden Girls," although it may resurface with a new title and format--but without Bea Arthur.

These three entries arguably were the ratings cornerstones of NBC--Carson for 30 years in late-night, "The Cosby Show" holding together a bone-crushing Thursday lineup and "The Golden Girls" propelling the hugely successful Saturday schedule.

But that's just the start of the changes at NBC, which lost its No. 1 position in prime time to CBS this season. NBC is having a mid-life crisis, gambling to establish a newer, younger image to attract advertisers--and looking for cheaper shows to ensure its survival.

More casualties from NBC's successful reign have emerged in recent days:

Gone next season will be "Night Court." Gone will be "In the Heat of the Night," which was snapped up by CBS. Gone will be "Matlock," which ABC grabbed in a hurry.

A week ago, NBC took out two full-page, trade-paper ads thanking "In the Heat of the Night," which stars Carroll O'Connor, and "Matlock," headlined by Andy Griffith, for their "great seasons of television."

The ads were gracious. Both series, in fact, were still doing fine in the ratings when NBC showed them the door.

And despite the shows' older appeal, a lot of heads turned in the TV industry because tossing out any proven winners in today's tough competitive market is questionable.

But what NBC was doing was what almost all the networks are doing these days--basically telling viewers over 50 years old to get lost. In fact, for advertisers, you're kind of suspect once you hit 35 or 40.

The crime of ageism is rampant not only at TV's studios and networks--it now is being directed more than ever against the nation's viewers.

There are several major reasons--or excuses, depending how you look at them. One is the financial success of Fox TV, which admittedly focuses on viewers 18 to 34. ABC also is cleaning up with younger-oriented shows that attract big ad money because of the demographic appeal--despite ABC's unimpressive ratings performance.

The fact that ABC picked up "Matlock" has nothing to do with altruism. It's just another bone thrown to the over-50 audience, a sort of token series for older viewers--with a very specific network purpose, to wit:

There are times when a show with older-skewing demographics can be valuable as a spoiler when nothing else can compete with a more youthful hit series. For example, "In the Heat of the Night" performed well against "Roseanne," attracting a wholly different audience.

In addition, a network may look for a series with older appeal for Fridays or Saturdays, when many younger viewers may be out for the night.

The only network that still insists on the value of older viewers, especially in a graying society, is CBS, which traditionally has attracted many in the 50-plus audience. But CBS and NBC are both having financial troubles, and there's the rub.

For ABC, "Matlock" and Peter Falk's "Columbo" are the two major placebos that will be used to placate the older audience when it suits the network's counterprogramming purposes.

And CBS has a stable of older-appeal shows, including "Murder, She Wrote," "Jake and the Fatman" and, now, "In the Heat of the Night."

NBC, however, is the network most obviously giving itself a face-lift with recent, dramatic moves. In unloading "In the Heat of the Night" and "Matlock," NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield said: "NBC is a network in transition. . . . Our focus is on building for the future."

One suspects that if NBC's reality show, "Unsolved Mysteries," had not become untouchable because it is a ratings hit and cost-effective, the series and its host, Robert Stack, who is 73, might have gone the way of O'Connor and Griffith.

At any rate, NBC's attempts to assure its future are taking various, intriguing forms. On March 31, for instance, it will launch a magazine series, "Dateline NBC," anchored by Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips, hoping to emulate the success of the numerous, cost-effective news and reality programs on CBS and ABC.

And then there are the moves in late-night.

When Carson retires from "The Tonight Show" on May 22, the program will belong again to NBC. It now is a Carson production, and the late-night king owns the shows and tapes, according to a network spokeswoman.

"The show reverts to NBC Productions" when the new host, Jay Leno, takes over on May 25, the spokeswoman added.

On Thursday, meanwhile, NBC acted to soothe the feelings of David Letterman, who has been critical to the network's late-night success but has suggested he might leave when his contract expires next year.

What NBC did was to terminate its contract to sell reruns of "Late Night With David Letterman" to the Arts & Entertainment cable channel, effective Sept. 30, because of the star's "unhappiness with the deal," the network spokeswoman said.

"That was a primary consideration," she said. "He felt the additional exposure would diminish the ratings for his live show. We thought it would increase them. But he's a long-term partner of ours and we didn't want to have him unhappy."

In battening its hatches, NBC nonetheless is admirably sticking to its risky gamble as the champion of network drama series, despite their horrendous cost of about $1.5 million an hour.

With a substantial number of worthy dramas--"I'll Fly Away," "Law & Order," "L.A. Law," "Reasonable Doubts," "Sisters" and "Quantum Leap"--it's probable that NBC gave up "In the Heat of the Night" and "Matlock" partly because it just cost too much to support so many one-hour film series.

The choice was clearly demographic, as was the gutty decision to stick with such new series as "I'll Fly Away." But whether the decision will pay off remains to be seen. Familiarity has been known to breed ratings, and many of the faces that once identified NBC soon will be gone.

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