NBC socks it to Burbank

Times Staff Writers

NBC Universal is dropping the curtain on "beautiful downtown Burbank."

The media company, which made the town of tract houses the butt of endless jokes, but also brought it prominence as the base of "The Tonight Show," is decamping to nearby Universal Studios.

The media company plans to announce today that it will sell much of the 34 acres it owns in Burbank, including the legendary NBC Studios at 3000 W. Alameda Ave.

The studio has a rich history, as home to such iconic programs as "The Tonight Show," first with Johnny Carson and now with Jay Leno, as well as "Hollywood Squares," "To Tell the Truth" and "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." Elvis Presley taped his 1968 Christmas special there, and Tom Brokaw started his NBC career at KNBC-TV Channel 4, which shares the premises.

" 'The Tonight Show' put us on the map" said Burbank Mayor Marsha Ramos. "Without that line from Johnny Carson, about 'beautiful downtown Burbank,' most people wouldn't even know that we exist. When 'The Tonight Show' leaves, there will be a portion of our heart that will be empty."

NBC Universal said it was in negotiations with a buyer, whom it declined to name.

The company intends to relocate the network and local news operations from Burbank to a new headquarters in a massive complex planned a couple of miles away on Lankershim Boulevard, across the street from Universal Studios.

A Red Line subway station and a sprawling parking lot now occupy the proposed site next to the 101 Freeway. The subway stop will remain and be part of the new complex.

The new "green" facility, with its high-definition news headquarters, is scheduled to house NBC News' West Coast operations and the local news staffs of KNBC and Spanish-language Telemundo KVEA-TV Channel 52. NBC's syndicated entertainment show "Access Hollywood" would also be located there.

NBC Universal expects to move into the new center in 2011. The sale of the Burbank property was necessary in part to pay for the elaborate new facility.

The project is not NBC Universal's only ambitious expansion at Universal Studios. It is separately seeking approval for a $3-billion development plan for Universal City that would add 2,900 homes to the area, as well as new production facilities and retail space. The project, which must get county and city approval, could take several years to get off the ground.

NBC Universal also confirmed Wednesday that "The Tonight Show" would remain in Los Angeles when Conan O'Brien, who now shoots his "Late Night" show in New York, takes over from Leno in 2009. With the Burbank facility on the block, the network is expanding and upgrading Studio One, a soundstage on the Universal Studios lot that was built in 1961 for "The Jack Benny Program." The new home for the late-night program has had other memorable productions, including "Jurassic Park III" and "The Incredible Hulk," as well as the 1980s television show "Knight Rider."

NBC Universal three years ago made the controversial decision to give O'Brien the illustrious 11:35 p.m. time slot. That move in effect set a retirement date on "The Tonight Show" for Leno, who continues to be one of the network's most popular and bankable stars.

"Everybody likes to have visible shows like 'The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.' They are a big part of who we are," said Mary J. Alvord, Burbank's city manager. "Jay has been more than a host -- he's been an accessible member of our community. It's a sad day for Burbank."

In fact, Leno attended a public safety communications simulation in Burbank on Wednesday.

Tom Smith, senior vice president of West Coast real estate for NBC Universal, noted that the company's development deal with Burbank required NBC to sell the parcel to a buyer who planned media-related uses for the property, a provision that could help guarantee the creation of high-paying jobs.

Before any deal is complete, however, the company wants assurances that it can lease back the site, purchased in 1951, for its news operations until the new facility in Universal City is complete. It is also considering retaining some of the studio space that it now leases to other productions, including "Days of Our Lives" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

"We have had a great relationship with Burbank, but it has become increasingly difficult to keep building new technology on top of an old backbone," Smith said.

NBC has ambitious plans for its new digs, which it has dubbed the West Coast News Headquarters and Content Center. The company would be anchor tenant of the nearly 1.5-million-square-foot project.

Los Angeles County and city officials were not unanimously enthusiastic about NBC's plan, even though it would bring jobs.

"It's too big," said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is also a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "This project has a long way to go. This is their opening salvo, but it's not a fait accompli as far as I'm concerned. Traffic and the scale of the project are going to be my concerns."

Universal's former owner, Music Corp. of America, sold the parcel to the MTA in the mid-1990s . As part of the transfer, Universal kept a "right of first refusal" for any future development plans on the site. Last year, NBC Universal told the MTA that it would be exercising its development option.

Rick Jager, a spokesman for the MTA, confirmed that negotiations for the use of the site were "nearing completion," adding that the deal could be finalized within the next two to three weeks.

According to plans filed with the city of Los Angeles in June by Thomas Properties, NBC Universal's developer, the so-called Metro Universal Project would be built in two phases. Phase 1 would include a 655,200-square-foot office complex and a 315,000-square-foot media production facility with up to 1,780 parking spaces, of which 564 would be reserved for Metro subway riders (up from the current 450 slots). There would also be retail shops and restaurants.

"I think this development could be a little too intense and overwhelming," said City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who said he was not supporting the project as it was currently designed. Traffic mitigation and street improvements would have to be made, he said.

"It's interesting and exciting that NBC is coming back to Los Angeles," La Bonge added, recalling that as a Boy Scout, he attended jamborees at NBC's first West Coast headquarters at Sunset and Vine in the heart of Hollywood.

Another issue for NBC Universal is how to preserve the site's historic Campo de Cahuenga, a replica of the adobe farmhouse near where the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed between Lt. Col. John C. Fremont and Gen. Andres Pico in 1847, ending hostilities in California between Mexico and the United States.

NBC's plan calls for a street-side studio modeled after NBC's "Today" show set in New York, as well as state-of-the-art production facilities that will allow the company's news organizations to more easily share content, executives said.

"I think this is a real pronouncement of a serious commitment on the company's part to news and information going forward," said Steve Capus, president of NBC News, adding that the new Universal City headquarters would give his division a "central nervous system."

Even though NBC's various newsrooms currently share the same facility in Burbank, "right now we're kind of a completely disconnected organization, because the technical spines around our organizations are built on different platforms."

While the behind-the-scenes changes may not be immediately evident to viewers, Capus said, "it will be great to finally be able to honestly say when we throw to someone in Los Angeles, 'We're standing in the city of Los Angeles.' "

The consolidation of NBC Universal's West Coast news divisions comes as the company is set to unveil a similar project in New York today -- a combined newsroom and production facility in its Rockefeller Center headquarters that will now house not only NBC News and WNBC-TV, but also MSNBC, which is leaving its New Jersey facility.

"In New York, we have all of our news entities on a common platform and it allows you to share media," said John Wallace, president of NBC's owned-and-operated television stations. "That's a tremendous advantage we don't have in Burbank, largely because the building was constructed 50 years ago."

NBC Universal officials sought to play down the impact their departure would have on Burbank.

"We're going to continue to be a very strong-minded community presence for the next three to five years," Smith said. "We're not going away any time soon."

Burbank was stung in the early 1990s when it lost major Lockheed Corp. aerospace operations, but the land near the city's airport has been turned into a thriving shopping and office district.

"It's always a blow to a community when you lose an economic generator like NBC, especially when it has a worldwide name brand," said Larry Kosmont, a real estate consultant and former Burbank city official.

But the loss might just be a short-term setback, Kosmont said. The Burbank Media District where the studio is located is one of the most desirable office markets in the region. The site could be highly coveted by developers and would lend itself to a mix of uses, including retail.

"This could be a double victory for NBC," Kosmont said. "They find a better home and sell their old one for a high value."

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meg.james@latimes.com

matea.gold@latimes.com

Times staff writers Roger Vincent and David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Burbank memories

Highlights of the NBC years in Burbank:

* Bob Hope began his long career with NBC in 1938 with a Burbank-based radio show. In 1993, NBC dedicated its studios to Hope.

* In 1966, 26-year-old Tom Brokaw started his NBC career as a news anchor at KNBC-TV in Burbank.

* In 1972, Johnny Carson moved "The Tonight Show" from New York to Burbank, where it has been based ever since.

* The afternoon soap opera "Days of Our Lives" has been filmed for almost all of its 42 years at the Burbank studio.

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