NBC Going Off Script at 8 p.m.
Changes to primetime part of company-wide cutbacks
NBC Universal's announcement Thursday that it will restructure to save $750 million over two years marks a retreat in primetime, which has long been the petri dish for U.S. pop culture.
Instead of using the 8 p.m. timeslot to showcase its most popular scripted shows -- such as "The Cosby Show" in the 1980s and "Friends" in the 1990s -- NBC will fill the hour with game shows and other lower-cost fare.
As the cost of new scripted shows has soared, viewers this season have not been impressed with the new offerings. Networks have been disappointed with the results, particularly with several shows that premiered at 8 p.m.
"The audience just isn't there," Bob Wright, chairman of NBC Universal, said in an interview. "We have some of our best stuff at 8 o'clock, and it's struggling."
Wright said NBC's game show "Deal or No Deal," CBS' durable "Survivor" and ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" have built solid followings at 8 p.m. FOX also airs its "American Idol" performance shows at 8 p.m. And most reality or game shows like those are a fraction of the cost of scripted programs.
Broadcasters have been gradually scaling back the number of hours they program with expensive shows. Saturday has become a night of reruns. FOX has become a ratings contender by filling only two prime-time hours on most nights.
Prominent Hollywood producers said NBC's move was not all that surprising.
"You're seeing this season a lot of expensive shows failing right out of the gate. And that's money they're not going to get back," said Greg Garcia, creator of NBC's "My Name Is Earl," which currently airs at 8 p.m. Thursdays.
David Nevins, president of Imagine Television, which produces "Friday Night Lights" for NBC, said, "I'll take a little less shelf space for more focus. For a network, launching too many shows at once tends to kill off all of your ducklings."
At NBC Universal, the cost cutting will go beyond the broadcast network's prime-time programming, which has suffered through two dismal seasons in fourth place and has become a drag on the earnings of parent General Electric Co. Every division of the once-proud peacock will be trimmed, from NBC's news-gathering operations to the Universal film studio. Division heads have been asked to identify personnel to cut and areas to streamline to boost profit.
The planned layoffs total 5 percent of NBC Universal's full-time workforce of 15,000.
"We've been looking across to the company to see where we might have some overlap," said Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal Television Group. "It turns out there is a lot."
Several advertisers and academics questioned the wisdom of NBC setting aside a third of its prime-time schedule for reality shows that, like scripted programs, are hit or miss. They said NBC's real problem was that it hadn't found a sitcom that could perform like "Friends" did. NBC currently has scripted programs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday ("Friday Night Lights"), Wednesday ("30 Rock" and "Twenty Good Years") and Thursday ("My Name Is Earl" and "The Office").
Advertisers and TV producers pointed out that networks have had much success over the years at 8 p.m. This fall, CBS successfully launched "Jericho," a scripted show about the aftermath of a nuclear blast, and ABC found a beauty in "Ugly Betty."
"I just think it's a shame to give up a time slot that's yielded so many hits over the last 20 or 30 years," said Josh Berman, creator of "Vanished," which has struggled to find an audience on FOX. "So many hit shows that have gone to reap hundreds of millions of dollars have originated in the 8 or 8:30 time slot."
Some NBC Universal executives privately regard the company's restructuring plan — dubbed NBCU 2.0 — as an effort by Zucker to lay out a forward-looking plan that will impress GE, whose chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, is weighing who will eventually succeed 63-year-old Wright. Zucker, the former "Today" executive producer, soared up the corporate ladder, but during his tenure NBC's prime-time fortunes have plummeted.
Zucker dismissed such speculation. "This is not about me," he said. "This is about doing my job to make sure that we are well positioned for the future. We will see greater changes in the media industry in the next five years than we have seen in the last 50 years."
L.A. Times writers Matea Gold and Lorenza Muñoz contributed to this report.