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NBC quits at 8 -- a dark hour for TV?

Times Staff Writer

THE music, movie and newspaper industries are already undergoing wrenching change in the Internet age, so there’s no reason to believe network TV should be immune to the malaise sweeping old media. But will the 8 p.m. hour -- prime time’s “family hour,” back in a more innocent epoch -- wind up a casualty?

In announcing steep layoffs and cost cuts last week, NBC Universal said its main broadcast network would chuck expensive sitcoms and dramas during the early evening -- such as this season’s ratings-challenged “30 Rock” and “Friday Night Lights” -- and instead devote the 8 p.m. hour to relatively cheap game and reality shows, such as Howie Mandel’s “Deal or No Deal” and Bob Saget’s new “1 vs. 100.”

“The audience just isn’t there,” NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright explained to The Times. “We have some of our best stuff at 8 o’clock, and it’s struggling.”

So the peacock network, which finished No. 4 in the ratings last season, is going to start kicking off prime time with what executives presumably think is their, uh, less-than-best stuff. That’s a big retreat from a company that not so long ago boasted blue-chip 8 p.m. hits like “Friends.” The new plan also runs counter to the oft-quoted programming mandate of former network chief Grant Tinker, who rescued NBC in the 1980s with fare like “The Cosby Show”: “First, be best; then, be first.”

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The broad range of programming choices in the 100-channel era has led many to conclude that TV is basking in a second golden age (the first was during the 1950s, when pioneers like Lucille Ball, Milton Berle and Sid Caesar held sway). But NBC’s move suggests that ours is actually a gilded age, and the paint is starting to flake off.

Many people in the TV business are surprised and dismayed to hear current NBC

executives talking about 8 p.m. as if it’s a kind of desolate, somewhat seedy precinct, where game-show tote boards clatter like Vegas slot machines and a bald man in a suit lurks with a briefcase. Detractors point

out that abandoning the hour

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to low-rent fare interrupts NBC’s ongoing efforts to lure affluent viewers and is overly dependent on the reality genre, which has in fact been cooling with viewers.

“I just don’t like it, for obvious reasons, when a network says in effect, ‘I give up, I’m going to cut costs and put reality shows on at 8 o’clock,’ ” said Donald Bellisario, executive producer of the military crime drama “NCIS,” which continues to perform well for CBS at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, even opposite monster competition such as Fox’s “American Idol.” “This is how you wither up and die.”

TV historian Tim Brooks, a research executive for the Lifetime cable networks, put it this way: “For NBC to put its future on doing reality at 8 o’clock because it works financially sounds like the GE financial people are overruling the creative people.” General Electric is the parent company of NBC Universal.

“There’s totally life at 8 p.m. All you need is a good program,” said Shari Anne Brill of New York-based ad firm Carat USA.

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Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. NBC executives, for instance, thought “Friday Night Lights” was better than good, and many critics agreed. The show tanked anyway.

But fans don’t need to worry -- not yet, anyway -- that “Lights” or “My Name Is Earl” are about to be booted for an infomercial. Sometimes TV executives trumpet silly decisions that they quietly reverse later, when business conditions or corner-office occupants change. NBC once vowed that it was out of the high-cost NFL business, for example. That didn’t keep executives from opening their checkbooks to bring Sunday football back this season, where it’s performing well.

During a panel discussion in Beverly Hills on Thursday, NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly was already playing down the 8 p.m. changes.

“We’re going to have to continue to be in the scripted business,” Reilly said. “We’re not going to unwind ‘Earl’ and ‘The Office,’ ” two sitcoms that kick off NBC’s Thursday night schedule. (An NBC spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.)

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But however unpopular the 8 p.m. gambit may be, NBC is correct on a crucial point. Increasing competition from cable TV and the Internet, as well as digital video recorders that allow users to skip commercials, is killing the financial assumptions that have guided the TV business for the past 50 years. “It’s starting to be the demise of the networks,” Bellisario said.

Programming is getting more costly to produce. The Times’ Meg James reported this month that this fall’s crop of new shows was the most expensive ever, with half of the 14 drama pilots costing $6 million or more. At the same time, advertisers are pushing back against network price increases for commercial time.

If the traditional broadcasters are to save themselves, the main argument boils down to a question of investment. Should the networks respond to the new environment by cutting their losses and surviving as leanly as possible, as NBC seems to be doing? Or is now the time that executives should be investing heavily in development, trying to suss out the next generation of hits that will enable them to stem the encroachment of new media?

If this sounds like the same debate that’s roiling executives’ offices at major newspapers (including this one), that’s not coincidental.

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In the TV business, at least, many veterans have a ready answer. There’s exactly one reason, and only one reason, why people choose to watch TV over doing something else. “It’s not any harder than it’s ever been,” Bellisario said of the network business. “It’s not getting harder if you make a good show.”

Channel Island is a blog about the television industry. For the latest posting, go to latimes.com/channelisland. Contact reporter Scott Collins at channelisland@latimes.com.


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