NBC Puts a Brave Face on Its Losses, Expenditures


Though acknowledging that losing “Seinfeld” represents “an incredible hill for us to climb,” NBC is better off now than when “Cheers” left its schedule five years ago, officials told reporters gathered in Pasadena on Friday.

NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer also defended the network’s high-priced “ER” renewal and the removal of Norm Macdonald from his “Weekend Update” anchor role on “Saturday Night Live,” while acknowledging that the loss of “Seinfeld” and NFL football during a three-week span spurred an emotional roller coaster ride at the top-rated network.

NBC learned in December that “Seinfeld” wouldn’t return, delivering a major blow to the network’s prime-time lineup. That series, however, didn’t establish its hit credentials until five years ago, when NBC was put in a similar predicament by Ted Danson’s decision to end “Cheers’ ” run while that show was still popular.


NBC hasn’t determined yet how to replace “Seinfeld” but maintains that the network has a number of shows that can pick up the baton and run next season. Among those are “3rd Rock From the Sun,” which the network believes can rebound from disappointing ratings this year, and, it hopes, “Mad About You,” whose stars haven’t decided whether to return for another season.

In fact, NBC President Robert Wright literally knelt in front of the 200 assembled TV critics, asking forgiveness for letting football go and praying, “Please let [“Mad About You” stars] Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt stay with us.”

Most of the “ER” cast has signed through at least two more seasons, but executive producer John Wells said he’s assuming that George Clooney, who plays Dr. Ross, will leave after next year. Clooney has become a feature film star, appearing in “Batman and Robin” and “The Peacemaker.”

Wright differentiated between paying exorbitant sums for football, which is split among four networks, and a franchise like “ER” that’s exclusive to NBC. Similarly, the network has secured exclusive rights to five consecutive Olympic Games, beginning in 2000.

Responding to another area of recent controversy, Ohlmeyer bristled at the suggestion that he replaced “Saturday Night’s” Macdonald because the comedian frequently joked about O.J. Simpson, a longtime Ohlmeyer friend whom the executive has publicly defended.

Several personalities, including David Letterman and Howard Stern, have criticized NBC for removing Macdonald, with Letterman calling Ohlmeyer “a dope” while interviewing Macdonald on his CBS late-night show.


Ohlmeyer pointed out that the Simpson case has been a constant topic on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and other NBC programs, saying, “I made very clear to everybody that I didn’t want people to be influenced by what my feelings were.”

NBC pushed for the change on the “Weekend Update” segment, Ohlmeyer said, because the network “felt it was not as sharp, as controversial, as biting” as in the past. He added that the program’s executive producer, Lorne Michaels, disagreed with the decision.

As for “ER,” NBC reiterated that it won’t lose money on the record-setting $850-million deal to which the network capitulated in order to retain prime-time’s No. 1 program for three more years.

According to Ohlmeyer, NBC has generated enormous profits during the first four seasons of “ER,” and the scales have now tipped in favor of the production company, Warner Bros. Television, something that’s traditionally happened with long-running hits.

“There’s nothing different about the concept of [the “ER” deal],” he said. “What’s different is the magnitude of the dollars.”

NBC felt additional pressure to close the negotiations, officials acknowledged, before the bidding closed on NFL football. NBC had sought to steal “Monday Night Football” from ABC and feared that “we would have a crazed ABC out there”--willing to pay any price to retaliate by nabbing “ER”--if that effort proved successful.


NBC anticipated some inevitable decline in “ER’s” ratings in negotiating the agreement. The program could also be negatively affected if the rest of NBC’s Thursday lineup weakens without “Seinfeld” at 9 p.m.

Though NBC will miss “Seinfeld,” both Ohlmeyer and Wright voiced admiration for its namesake, Jerry Seinfeld, for choosing to leave on a high note.

“A lot of people have talked about [doing that, but] very few people have had the courage to do it,” Ohlmeyer said.

NBC conceded that the network erred by scheduling an unprecedented 18 half-hour comedies in prime time to begin the season. The network has either canceled or temporarily yanked several of those programs, including “Jenny,” “Men Behaving Badly” and “The Tony Danza Show.”