Friday, January 9, 2009

Richard Belzer to NBC: You’re Desperate and Dying

Leave it to Law & Order SVU's Richard Belzer to come out and say what everyone else is thinking – and say it bluntly. On January 7, the LA Times reported that during Belzer’s participation in a PBS panel (talking about the late George Carlin), Belzer was asked his opinion of NBC's recent decision to place Jay Leno in the weekday 10:00 PM time slot in the fall, putting an end to 5 prime time hours of scripted programming. And he told it like it is, as he said he has a contract that renders him untouchable.

"I just think it’s a network that’s desperate…It’s the last gasp of a dying network, which can turn out to be brilliant financially. But in terms of writers, actors, producers and other people who work on shows, I think it’s a tragedy, frankly."

I only disagree with Belzer on one point – I don’t even think the move is brilliant financially. I can’t see NBC being able to sustain the number of viewers that it received with the 10 PM programming like Law & Order, Law & Order SVU, or even the departing ER. Sure, those shows cost a lot more to produce than a show like Leno’s, but they also likely commanded higher advertising dollars. And NBC will still have a lot of overhead to cover. If the network calculates or measures a "cost per employee" or "profit per employee", it would be interesting to see how those numbers are affected after this change is made. My projection is that cost per employee goes up, and profit goes down.

But I agree strongly with Belzer that this is a tragedy, maybe not because it would put writers, actors, et al. out of work, but that it may mark the death of creative dramatic programming for NBC. Everybody likes a good story. And everybody likes to see good actors in a good story. People like to have that time to watch some fictional show on television, maybe to take their minds off their own problems. But everyone has a limit, and even 5 days of Law & Order would get old after a while. OK – let me think about that – there was a time when NBC had a Law & Order franchise show on 3 days a week (Law & Order, Law & Order SVU, and Law & Order Criminal Intent). But when they tried to add in Law & Order Trial by Jury and Conviction, both new shows failed. I think it was simple overload, and maybe some Law & Order fatigue set in with the creative end of the franchise. Five days of a talk show at 10:00 PM when there are other choices on other networks would be worse than Law & Order fatigue, and could happen much faster. My opinion is that NBC's opinion of the draw of Jay Leno is inflated.

So, what does it say about a network like NBC that doesn’t have the talent or can’t afford to put together 5 extra hours of scripted programming? Like Belzer, I’d say they are dying.

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