How does NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly describe a season in which his network tumbled from first to fourth place?
"[It] was kind of a colonic," he told the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., Sunday.
Is that covered by parent company General Electric's health plan? ("I think it's 80 percent," one exec told us.) But seriously, folks, Reilly is trying to look at his network's sudden biggest-loser status as a cleansing experience that will prepare all involved to take on the task of rebuilding a prime-time schedule.
"It literally took any residual sense of entitlement or complacency at our company and blew it out, so to speak," he said. "I do feel a thirst for creativity and a focus for getting NBC back on the leading edge. This is what it's going to take ultimately to fuel our comeback."
In a rare admission for a programming executive, Reilly said NBC has been "in denial" about its downward momentum last season. "We had history-making hits going away," he said. "We needed to reseed them. It didn't happen, and now here we are."
Of course, it could get worse before it gets better. While critics have designated the comedy My Name Is Earl as one of the better new shows of the season, no one is predicting that any of NBC's fall entries will become breakout hits.
NBC has had periods of hit-free development in the past, even during its nine most recent seasons when it was No. 1 with advertiser-prized viewers aged 18 to 49. The difference lately is that the competition has been getting much stronger. CBS slowly reinvented itself and now has shows that appeal to young viewers. ABC, which had hit bottom, rolled the dice and came up with innovative breakout shows such as Lost and Desperate Housewives. Fox has wisely managed its juggernaut American Idol and last season used it to create a new hit in House.
Reilly knows all that. "The fact is, we have some significant underlying challenges," he said. "These are going to take time to fix."
Some in Hollywood wonder if the current NBC regime will have the time. Reilly's status has long been the subject of rumors. Industry types are now also wondering out loud if his boss, Jeff Zucker, will be able to survive this downturn (which cost the network nearly $1 billion in ad sales).
Reilly says that no one at GE headquarters in Fairfield, Conn., has pushed the panic button yet. "I've been very heartened by the fact there's not been a knee-jerk reaction to our problems right now," Reilly said. "[GE] goes through business challenges like this all the time in different sectors. We've been on top for a long time. We've thrown off a lot of revenue for them for the last decade, and there's an acknowledgment [that] this is a down cycle."
Reilly said despite the loss in ad revenue due to NBC's ratings woes, he's got the same budget to develop new shows, and "a chunk of money" for midseason replacements.
The Death of a Frog
You haven't seen WB's cartoon mascot Michigan J. Frog on his network lately. On Friday, WB executives revealed that he's gone for good.
Network downsizing? No. WB has been responding to research that says many viewers in their twenties and thirties think the network is just for teens, and Michigan wasn't helping. "That is not the image we want to put out to our audience," said WB network chairman Garth Ancier.
Over the last year, WB has tried to look more grown-up by mixing more mature stars in its youth-driven shows (this fall's lineup includes Don Johnson). Whacking the frog was a natural next step, according to Ancier.
But aren't identifiable corporate characters hard to come by? Would Ancier have done such a thing to the peacock when he was at NBC? "The peacock was a true American icon based on the advent of color television and is one of the most recognizable symbols, like the Apple logo, in corporate America," Ancier replied, adding that Michigan J. Frog never attained that status.
Chris Is UPN's Rock
UPN entertainment president Dawn Ostroff made clear at her press-tour session what we told you here in the Biz last week — Everybody Hates Chris, the promising new sitcom from Chris Rock, isn't going to CBS.
"UPN is not a farm system for CBS," she said, rightfully a little bit irked that reporters think UPN isn't worthy of Rock's show. "Believe me, we're thrilled that all of you like the show enough and think it's good enough to put on the No. 1 network. But we got it, we produced it and we are broadcasting it." So there.
To read last week's Biz coverage of the TCA press tour, click here.
And don't miss Michael Ausiello's daily press tour diaries; click here.