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TCA press tour: NBC to TV critics: We're on brand ... sort of

August 5, 2009 | 12:27 pm

The question came late in the NBC executive session at the Television Critics Assn. this morning. Where is this “evolving, changing” network headed? What are these fundamental changes to television that we keep hearing about?

Simply stated: What is becoming of NBC?

“We are all trying to figure out what our evolving network is going to be,” said Angela Bromstad, president of prime-time entertainment, in one of the most candid moments of a bit of a bruising session with about 150 television critics and writers.

This is the down-in-the-dumps fourth-place network, NBC, which used to set the gold standard of television. This is the network that gave us such gems as “Seinfeld,” “Cheers,” “Frasier” and “Friends.”  So why, one writer asked, is the network that used to define quality television airing “two excruciatingly long hours” of “Celebrity Apprentice,” a show that contains more filler than fun or intrigue?

Ten days into the latest NBC programming administration, Bromstad and her colleague, Paul Telegdy, who is in charge of unscripted programming, took to the stage to face the restive crowd of critics. And there were more questions than answers.

At one point, Telegdy had difficulty articulating what NBC’s “brand” is, even though a few minutes earlier Bromstad said that one of NBC’s problems was that it had strayed too far from its legendary “brand.”

What is the NBC brand?

“Well, that’s something that we have spent a lot of research and focus on, in terms of core pillars on what is and where is it an NBC show,” Telegdy said. “We refer to certain key identifying characteristics of NBC shows.  That they be human first, deal with real people, people that our cast, our viewers identify with. That are fundamentally positive and that embraces our comedy brand but also, an optimism ...”

That’s when Bromstad stepped in to help her colleague, saying that it's “Heroes,” “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Law & Order: SVU” that come closest to that elusive NBC brand.

“The returning shows that we have sort of live up to that legacy that NBC has always stood for,” Bromstad said. “I think we have fallen short in the past couple of years, and it is our goal to bring back those high-quality, sophisticated drama and comedies and a brand of alternative that fits into that.”

Critics were frustrated that Bromstad and Telegdy tried at first to dodge questions about the network’s big bet of moving late-night comedian Jay Leno to prime time. Finally, Bromstad said several factors would be used to judge the viability of Leno at 10 o’clock, including the “cumulative 52-week” ranking for the show and whether it performs better than this past season's dramas and comedies that ran in that hourlong time slot.

“It is a marathon and is not going to be determined in the first five days of the show,” she said.

Earlier in the week, CBS’ programming chief, Nina Tassler, hit a rim-shot in the same room when she said that it really didn’t matter what kind of ratings NBC’s new late-night host, Conan O’Brien, would achieve compared to CBS’ David Letterman, because NBC would still trumpet the Conan move a success.

“Are you going to continue to parse the numbers so you can say that Conan is the king of late night when he really isn’t?” demanded one critic.

Bromstad replied: “I think it’s fair to say that we are going to declare victories where we have them.”

The programming chief unintentionally hit that NBC brand of laugh-out-loud comedy when she was asked to discuss the departure of NBC’s co-chairman of entertainment, Ben Silverman.  The former independent producer took the top NBC programming job two years ago with big promises to turn around the peacock's flagging fortunes -- but fell well short.

“I think this has always been Ben’s plan,” Bromstad said, prompting guffaws from the critics in the room.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to illicit ... I think it has always been Ben’s plan to transition back to his entrepreneurial roots. I don’t think he was looking to be at NBC for a long-term thing.”

-- Meg James