LOS ANGELES – Can "The Voice" save NBC?
The popular singing competition debuts Monday night, and experts say it may be NBC's best hope to pull itself out of its serious tailspin.
“’The Voice’ is not only NBC’s biggest non-football hit, it also helps prop up some of the network’s other shows. Ratings for ‘Smash’ and ‘Go On’ have plummeted since they lost their ‘Voice’ lead-in, and ‘Revolution’ took a four-month break to avoid airing without ‘The Voice’ to cushion its place,” Yahoo! TV Editor Dave Nemetz told FOX411's Pop tarts column. “’The Voice’ is the linchpin that holds NBC’s entire prime-time lineup together.”
But experts and insiders we interviewed told us that prime time is only a fraction of NBC's problems, and that things have gotten so bad, some at the network are scared for their jobs.
“Many think they’re going to get fired,” a source close to the network FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “The mood is bad.”
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With problems across its programming, from morning to prime time to late night, some wonder what can be done to restore NBC to its former glory: being the No. 1 network in America.
Pop Tarts has divided NBC’s woes into five categories, outlining the network’s current challenges, and what experts say the Peacock network can do to right their listing ship.
LATE NIGHT TRANSITION A SHAMBLES, AGAIN
NBC’s top talent Jay Leno, who was forced last year to take a 50 percent pay cut down to an estimated $15 million per year to save staff jobs and offset show losses, hasn’t held back when it comes to dishing on how dire it is at his network. Last week, he included jabs at NBC in his "Tonight Show" monologue each night.
"According to several reports, scientists say they are getting closer and closer to being able to do Jurassic Park-style cloning of extinct species," he joked on Wednesday. "Imagine that — things that were once thought to be extinct could be brought back from the dead. So there's hope for NBC."
The previous night he quipped: ““Did you hear about this? A 28-year-old woman from Serbia has a rare brain condition where she sees everything upside down. The good news? She’s now been given a job at the White House as President Obama’s economic advisor. Isn’t that crazy? It’s unbelievable. She sees everything upside down. In fact, she thinks NBC is at the top of the ratings.”
Many of his barbs came after the New York Times revealed that entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt had fired off an angry email to Leno in response to a Feb. 28 spearing of the network, when Leno taunted: “It’s so bad ‘The Biggest Loser’ isn’t just a TV show anymore, it’s our new motto,” and, “It has been so bad, NBC called Manti Te’o and asked him to bring in some imaginary viewers.”
Leno may have been irked by messy speculation that he has already been replaced by Jimmy Fallon, and the network is simply waiting out his contract. This after he was messily replaced by Conan O’Brien in 2010, only to wrestle the show back, but at great damage to his public reputation.
MORNING SHOW UGLINESS TURNING OFF VIEWERS
If their late night troubles weren’t enough, NBC’s most profitable program of all, "Today," is taking an even worse beating.
"The Tonight Show" is at least still the No.1 talk show in its time slot. But during its upfront presentation in New York last week, "Today" anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, had to deal with the fact their program has slipped behind “Good Morning America,” the show they managed to beat for 16 consecutive years, and is still sliding. The return of Robin Roberts to "GMA" last month saw the ratings gap widen even further, with "GMA" drawing around 6.1 million viewers while "Today" hovered somewhere between 4.9 and 5 million.
They also had to address the horrendous publicity that has followed them in recent months.
“I would like to tackle a teeny white elephant in the room… We hate being in the news,” Lauer said. “We want to go back to being the most-watched morning program – and least talked about morning program.”
Lauer’s fading fan base and attempts to reform his public image have been daily fodder in the media ever since Ann Curry was unceremoniously axed as his co-anchor last June. Two weeks ago he addressed the issue in an interview with Daily Beast, in which it was revealed that at one point last Fall he offered to leave too if he thought it would boost the flagging show. While executives chimed in they'd never let him leave, Lauer is now reportedly being considered as a potential replacement for “Jeopardy’ host Alex Trebek if he steps down in 2016.
NOBODY WATCHES NBC’S PRIME TIME UNLESS IT’S A REALITY SHOW
According to an inside source, tensions are sky-high at NBC’s New York headquarters when it comes to their prime time failures.
After premiering last winter with much fanfare and an incredibly costly promotional campaign, it proved to be an audience dud. Now in its second season, the scripted musical-drama series, which reportedly averages a whopping $4 million in production costs per episode, this month hit an all-time low of 2.6 million viewers.
“When ‘Smash’ came back and was terrible, everybody was peeved as they (NBC) invested a lot," said the source. "The show was terrible, and ratings too."
On the other hand “The Voice” has proven to be a ratings juggernaut for the network. But its fourth season bows Monday with two of its originals out of their revolving chairs, and many are worried as to whether it will live up to the expectations set in previous years.
“‘The Voice’ was a hot commodity, but without Christina (Aguilera) and Cee Lo (Green) as hosts some are concerned it will flop with Usher and Shakira on the judging panel instead,” the source said. “There’s just not the same spark.”
Some wonder if NBC should move away from its comedy and scripted legacy completely and embrace what more viewers seem to want to see. Long-time critical (if not ratings) successes “30 Rock” and “The Office” are ending their runs this year, and their possible replacements face a long uphill climb.
“It has been a trying time for a very long time now. It is bleak. Other than ‘The Revolution,’ they haven’t been able to launch a scripted show in years,” another source closely linked to the network dished. “Their only successes right now are in reality, like ‘The Voice,’ ‘The Biggest Loser,’ ‘Apprentice’ and ‘America’s Got Talent.’”
OVERALL RATINGS HIT NEW LOWS AS NETWORK COMES IN 5TH, BEHIND UNIVISION
Three months ago, things at NBC were actually looking up for a change. NBC dominated last September through December and surprised the industry by pulling itself out of its fourth place doldrums and taking top spot 13 out of 15 weeks. But ratings this year have plummeted into a whole new level of low. The network finished its February sweeps not only far behind its competitors CBS, FOX and ABC, but also behind the Spanish-language Univision.
Even “Saturday Night Live” is now trumping its network’s prime time players. The March 17 episode hosted by Justin Timberlake attracted a much greater viewership than anything aired that same week in prime time, attracting 8.4 million viewers and becoming NBC’s most watched show all year. Their most watched prime time show was “The Biggest Loser” which brought in 5.9 million. There were 36 prime time programs that came in higher than that.
Adding insult to injury, NBC clocked in with the lowest-rated new network drama of the year, “Do No Harm,” which was yanked after two episodes.
NEW MANAGEMENT NOT DOING BETTER THAN ZUCKER, WHO WAS BLAMED FOR RUINING NBC
In 2010, then-chief executive of NBC Universal and longest-serving senior manager, Jeff Zucker, announced that he would be parting ways with NBC once the takeover by Comcast was completed. At the time, Zucker – who endured intense criticism over his handling of the prime time hours on the broadcast network and the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien “Tonight Show” debacle – made it clear his departure was not his decision, and that Comcast had its own ideas for the best team.
Yet now, more than two years later, NBC is wading through its lowest ratings period and still getting grief from the #nbcfail Twitter hashtag popularized last year. There was the embarrassing and brutal firing of Ann Curry, "Today"’s broadcast of Kris Jenner discussing plastic surgery instead of the 9/11 memorial, the large costs associated to shows like Greenblatt’s little-watched pet project “Smash,” and the audience rejection of three new scripted shows “1600 Penn,” ‘Deception” and “Do No Harm.”
But now with the new drama of Leno being dumped for Fallon, NBC may even have a bigger problem on its hands. The network could potentially have to fork out big bucks to re-locate the show from Burbank to New York, all while still dealing with losses from the 2010 O’Brien/Leno fiasco. There are also rumors NBC could have to pay a pricey early exit fee for Leno, whose contract isn’t up until 2014, as his relationship with NBC executives continues to crumble.
According one veteran entertainment publicist, the network’s talent is doing nothing to help, either.
“The network has lost focus on what it is they do. Matt Lauer, as talented as he may think he is, is there to entertain or interest the viewers. Leno is supposed to keep us smiling about world events and society, not his internal fighting,” remarked Juda Engelmayer, Senior Vice President of 5W Public Relations. “They have turned the talent and their lives into a soap opera, and the public isn’t interested.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
NBC is not the first network to find itself with a steep uphill climb. Indeed each of the big four networks has had its downs before its ups.
Before debuting hits “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Lost” in the 2000s, ABC was also in disarray. Now it boasts the Emmy-hoarding comedy "Modern Family" and late night's shiniest new toy, "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"
FOX started from scratch in 1986 against the already well-established Big 3 network rivals, slowly pieced together a winning prime time strategy, and then hit the jackpot when its own singing competition,“American Idol,” became the most watched show on television. For an unprecedented eight consecutive years, from the 2003–04 television season through the 2010–11 season, "American Idol"'s performance or results show was ranked No.1.
And then there is the Tiffany network.
“CBS got back on top when (Les) Moonves came in (almost two decades ago) but it was about good shows, there was of course an entirely new management team with him, but they to a degree embraced what they had, an older audience, and didn’t alienate them,” one veteran television executive observed. “Instead they created programming that would keep that audience and at the same time bring in a younger, but not a young, demographic."
Entertainment attorney David Albert Pierce of Pierce Law Group said NBC may want to take a closer look at the CBS game plan, adding that NBC’s problems are due in large part to the notion that there has never been more competition for viewers, from YouTube and Facebook to X-Box and interactive gaming, in addition to cable channels and Netflix.
“Unfortunately, the very viewers that NBC has come to rely on since the 80’s, when the network secured Thursday night comedy night as ‘Must See TV’ with ‘Cosby’ and ‘Cheers,’ continuing into the 90’s with ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends,' reflects the prime demographic for who is turning off televisions and finding alternative laughs,” he explained. “But CBS ... has historically sought out older viewers. Viewers over 40 are not as likely to turn off the television in favor of watching goofy YouTube videos. Hence, while all networks are losing market share, CBS has the advantage of older viewers to keep them tuning in.”
Crisis management guru Glenn Selig said the longer they proceed without a plan, the harder it will be on NBC.
“NBC is running into some bad luck and it seems like there is no blueprint to win. They need to get a hold of the situation and it's clear from Leno's comments the he doesn't believe the network has a winning game plan or even perhaps any plan,” he said. "Perhaps behind the scenes they're blaming people rather than finding answers. The good news is that NBC is a powerful brand and nothing has transpired that cannot be overcome, but the longer this goes on the harder it will be to recover.”
Joshua Kurp, Editor of pop culture site UPROXX, agrees NBC is in a tough spot.
“NBC's in a no-win situation. The network has cult hits, like ‘Community’ and ‘Parks and Recreation,’ but those don't pay the bills. NBC should admit that they're so far gone, they need to start over again and cut down to two hours of original programming a night, like FOX does. That means the network can spend more time — and give more money — to the shows that deserve attention, and not try to fill as many scheduling holes as possible with whatever garbage they desperately green light."
But one insider said NBC, like any network, is always just a hit away from redemption.
"I think it is as simple as finding great programming, and these days it only takes one," the source said. "November  was the proof, on the back of ‘The Voice’ and football, they were catapulted to number No.1, so one to two hit shows can push them right back there.”
NBC did not respond to a request for comment.
Danielle Jones-Wesley contributed to this report.