Comcast-NBC merger: Can this network be saved?

comcast-nbc-logos-320.jpgThe Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department signed off on cable giant Comcast's takeover of NBC Universal on Tuesday (Jan. 18), clearing the path for the transaction to close by the end of the month.

As part of the deal, Comcast will gain 51 percent control (with options to buy a bigger share over time) of Universal Pictures, a sizable TV production unit, a theme-park business and several very profitable cable channels, including USA, Syfy and Bravo.

And, oh yeah, a broadcast network too. The aforementioned cable properties are the star of the business deal that was approved Tuesday, but NBC will probably get the most media attention since, after all, it's in the name of the company, and it's been struggling for several years.

Although it seems like NBC has been in the dumps forever, it actually hasn't been that long. NBC was the No. 1 network on TV as recently as 2004, but its fall was fast and hard: It went from first to fourth in adults 18-49 the season after "Friends" departed and hasn't really gotten off the floor since then. The network hasn't developed any sustained, across-the-board hits in a long time, and it's had the added misfortune of falling behind in a half-decade that's seen an enormous shift in the way people watch TV, whether it be original shows on cable or viewing broadcast shows via DVR or online.

Currently, NBC's lone hit, "Sunday Night Football," doesn't directly support anything else on the schedule, and it's over after half the year. Aside from its football coverage, NBC has only two other shows, "Law & Order: SVU" and "Law & Order: Los Angeles," in the top 40 among viewers (both average a shade over 9 million viewers), and only one non-football show -- "The Office" -- cracks the top 30 in the adults 18-49 demographic.

(On the upside, as HitFix's Alan Sepinwall noted recently, NBC's woes have allowed shows like "Chuck," "Community" and "Parks and Recreation" to survive for multiple seasons with ratings that would have resulted in quick cancellations elsewhere.)

It will be up to former Showtime Entertainment president Robert Greenblatt to try to turn the ship around, beginning with this pilot season. He's pretty well-liked in the industry and did a very good job in raising Showtime's profile during his tenure there, but NBC is definitely more than one hit away from regaining some of its former luster.

The last big turnaround at a broadcast network came in 2004-05, when ABC rebounded from several seasons of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" dependence to rejoin the big boys. It took two massive fall hits ( "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost"), another strong fall performer ( "Boston Legal") and a breakout midseason show ( "Grey's Anatomy") to accomplish that; NBC will need a similarly golden year in development to make a big comeback.
Photo/Video credit: Comcast, NBC
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