When Comcast first announced its plans a year ago to buy NBC Universal from General Electric, the experts felt it was the cable networks, not NBC and its television stations, that Comcast really wanted. There was across-the-board gnashing of teeth about what would happen to NBC. But Comcast executives assured regulators and tried to persuade the experts that that wasn’t the case. They really believed in broadcasting, they said. They looked forward to reinvigorating the business and restoring the Peacock’s colors. And over the past 12 months, Comcast has shown that it meant everything it said.
OK, no more jokes about Kabletown or the absurdity of running a major broadcast network from some stop on the Acela between New York and Washington.
Comcast took over NBCUniversal one year ago this Sunday, and so far has been a model owner, at least for the broadcasting end of the business that I follow.
I’m not talking about results. It’s still too soon for that. I’m talking about commitment and investment.
When Comcast announced its plans to bump aside General Electric and secure a majority stake in the company, the experts felt Comcast interest was the stable of premier cable networks — Bravo, USA, Syfy — that fit naturally is with its existing businesses.
They suggested the underperforming NBC broadcast network and the major market O&Os were unwanted extras — sort of like the snazzy “sport trim” package you ended up with because the car on the lot already had it.
But Comcast executives assured regulators and tried to persuade the experts that that wasn’t the case. They really believed in broadcasting, they said. They looked forward to reinvigorating the business and buffing the Peacock’s colors to their original brightness.
And over the past 12 months, Comcast has shown that it meant everything it said.
As we have reported here before, Comcast hired Valari Staab from ABC-owned KGO San Francisco and gave her “tens of millions of dollars” to vie once again to be No. 1 in every TV market.
GE had been starving the stations, NBC Broadcasting Chairman Ted Harbert told a NATPE audience earlier this week. “We … invested … back in the stations. We hired 130 people, bought helicopters in New York and Los Angeles, and bought a lot of [ENG] trucks. It’s about how much news is on the air, what’s in the newscast, what enterprise journalism is going on, what you are out there covering.
“One example I like to use — but it’s tragic — is there was a fire out in Queens and [WNBC] couldn’t get our news vans out to the fire because we were saving money by having them parked in New Jersey…. Really? That’s over. We’re going to win or don’t cover the news.”
Harbert also allowed Staab to pick up two new first-run talks shows — Steve Harvey and Jeff Probst — to fill the 2-4 p.m. hours and build audience leading into Ellen and the evening news.
“Every station needs a point of distinction, and we think Steve Harvey will be that for us,” said Harbert. “Ellen does a fantastic job of doing an entertaining talk show. Dr. Phil does a fantastic job of a hard-advice show. We’ve got a guy who can do both. He can be really funny and, because he has written New York Times bestsellers and has a radio show, he is going to be a substantive advice show.”
Steve Harvey is being syndicated by NBCUniversal Television Distribution and that, too, is an example of Comcast’s commitment to broadcasting. It shows that Comcast is willing take a chance on quality first-run syndication outside of the conflict genre despite the long odds of success.
I suppose that GE would have re-upped with the NFL along with CBS and Fox last month, but who knows? Such deals are hard to justify on a straight ROI basis to accountants more comfortable with locomotive and jet engine manufacturing.
But the fact is Comcast not only extended its current package (the season-opening game, Sunday nights and its turn with the Super Bowl) through 2022, it expanded it, adding the traditional Thanksgiving primetime game. This, despite a 55% increase in the average annual rights fee to $950 million.
How important is that deal in affiliates? Go ask Ed Ansin. His NBC affiliate in Boston, WHDH, must be doing OK these days. It will be broadcasting the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 with the hometown Patriots determine to revenge their loss to the New York Giants in the same game four years ago. It doesn’t get any bigger.
Comcast is lending its Spanish-language broadcast network, Telemundo, the same kind of support. Last fall, it outbid rival Univision for World Cup soccer between 2015 and 2022.
“They’re risk takers,” said Emilio Romano of his new bosses during his NATPE appearance. “They know how to invest, and they know how to build a world-class media company.”
And what about the Olympics? In June, Comcast preserved that franchise for NBC through the 2020 games by outbidding ESPN and Fox. The cost: $4.4 billion. Yet another massive investment.
The Comcast takeover of the NBC mother ship freaked out affiliates of not just NBC, but of all the networks. They demanded safeguards in the government approvals of Comcast-GE deal and got them.
In retrospect, they seem unnecessary. The Comcast has proven to be no threat to anybody. Comcast has publically recognized the value and importance of retrans, and, under its aegis, NBC has been an ideal network partner.
While other networks, particularly Fox, pressed the affiliates hard for substantial shares of their retrans revenue, NBC proposed last May representing the affiliates in negotiations with cable and satellite to maximize the take. Strength in numbers is the idea.
At NATPE last week, Nexstar CEO Perry Sook endorsed the so-called proxy plan. “I think that can get us to $2 [per sub per month] faster than we can under our own power negotiating MSO by MSO, market by market.”
The plan is long overdue. But from all we have heard from the affiliate and network side, progress is being made. “We’ve been at it for a long time,” Brian Lawlor, head of the Scripps station group and chairman of the NBC affiliate board told TVNewsCheck‘s Price Colman. “Every day we get closer…. Neither of us is driven by deadlines.”
Incidentally, as a broadcaster now, Comcast has dropped out of cable’s and satellite’s campaign in Washington to revamp the retrans rules and diminish broadcasters’ retrans negotiating leverage. Without Comcast, the other operators have been having a tough time making headway on the Hill and at the FCC.
Comcast has already learned what every other network owner learned: programming primetime is incredibly difficult. NBC’s first season under the Comcast banner was largely a bust.
But it wasn’t because Comcast skimped. Last year, just before the upfronts. NBCU CEO Steve Burke said the company was investing $200 million in primetime development for the 2011-12 season. Despite the poor results, I expect that it is now doing the same for the 2012-13 season.
But before we write off the this season entirely. Let’s see what happens over the next nine days. Immediately following the Super Bowl, NBC will launch the second cycle of The Voice, one of the few bright spots on the schedule last spring.
And the following night at 10 p.m. ET, backed by one of the most elaborate promotional campaigns I’ve ever seen for a new TV show, Smash makes its NBC broadcast debut. If you don’t know what it’s about, you will by its air date.
TV stations, broadcast syndication, NFL football, Olympics, World Cup, network primetime — that’s a quite an investment for any company, especially one from Philadelphia.
You’ve got to believe that Comcast really does believe in broadcasting.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at 973-701-1067 or [email protected].