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The National Broadcasting Company, owned by NBCUniversal (a unit of Comcast and General Electric), is the United States' oldest radio and TV network. NBC-TV is famous for its peacock logo, whose original purpose was to promote the network's "living color" broadcasts. For this reason, NBC is sometimes known as "The Peacock Network" or just "The Peacock". Originally founded by set manufacturer RCA to provide people who bought their radios something to listen to, NBC once had two radio networks — NBC Red and NBC Blue. In 1943, NBC Blue was split off in an antitrust lawsuit, and would go on to become ABC.
NBC was the first to take color television seriously; CBS had dabbled in it, but their system (which was more complex and required manually switching between black-and-white and color modes) was only ever experimented with for a few years before NBC's all-electronic system took off. NBC also had a tight grip on much of the U.S. radio landscape; they held up the adoption of FM radio for years (and ruined its inventor) because of fear it would put their mostly-AM network out of business. Due to the FCC not allowing non-broadcast companies to own both radio and television assets (General Electric had bought NBC in 1986), NBC finally exited the radio business in the late 1980s, selling what was left of the old NBC Red to Westwood One and the radio stations to various companies (most of them went to Emmis Communications).
It has the most famous address in all of broadcasting - 30 Rockefeller Center, New York, NY 10012- with not one but two shows named after it; 30 Rock, a Sitcom about TV comedy writers and Rock Center, a Prime Time News Magazine Show.
1977-1981: NBC lays an egg (the Silverman era)
Before 1977, NBC had typically run a solid #2 to CBS. This all changed as ABC, with its popular Jiggle Shows and epic Miniseries, shot from last place to #1, leaving NBC with "older" shows like Little House On the Prairie. NBC hired Fred Silverman, the executive who had been responsible for ABC's turnaround, as president and CEO, and he tried gimmick after gimmick trying to increase ratings. Some of the biggest flops in their history, such as Supertrain, Pink Lady and Jeff, and the 1980-81 season of Saturday Night Live, date from this era, with only a few successes (Real People, Diff'rent Strokes) to speak of. The final straw was the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, which prompted the US Olympic team to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics — and NBC, having pretty much bet the farm on Olympic programming that year, found itself broadcasting an event that Americans, without the home team to root for, couldn't care less about (it only did a grudging Clip Show to keep the diehards who could care less about politics happy). Between RCA funding pie-in-the-sky projects like the SelectaVision video disc, the shift in TV sales from US brands to Japanese brands, and NBC's continued poor performance, some people wondered if the network would be shut down or sold off to keep RCA from going bankrupt.
Indeed, even much of NBC's own staff thought little of Silverman. On Saturday Night Live, series writer and occasional performer Al Franken satirized Silverman in a 1980 Weekend Update commentary titled "A Limo For The Lame-O" (part of an ongoing series of commentaries about the 1980s being "the Al Franken decade"), calling Silverman "a total unequivocal failure" and showing a chart of the top 20 network shows, pointing out that there were no big N's on the list; he further said that because of this, Silverman didn't deserve a limo but Franken himself did. Silverman, ostensibly not one to take a joke, nixed Lorne Michaels' request that Franken succeed him as executive producer of SNL... which not only killed any hope of the 1980s truly being the Al Franken decade, but caused Michaels to be replaced with Jean Doumanian instead, leading to SNL's Dork Age in the 1980-81 season.
Later in 1980, network staff went so far as to use the same production studio and vocalists that did the network's "We're Proud!" campaign song and make a hilarious parody mocking their boss, which was sent to local affiliates for Christmas. After Don Imus played it on his radio show in early 1981, the fun stopped immediately and Silverman (now even less amused then he was at Franken) ordered all copies of the song destroyed. That worked about as well as his attempts to boost ratings — i.e., not at all.
1981-2004: Must-See TV; NBC becomes #1; the GE merger
Starting in 1981, however, NBC quickly turned itself around. They finally ousted Silverman, hired MTM Enterprises co-founder Grant Tinker as chairman and CEO, and put Brandon Tartikoff in charge of programming duties, hoping to end the tide of bad shows. Together, the decisions of Tinker and Tartikoff ended up creating a golden age for NBC; despite a few false starts in 1982 and ESPECIALLY 1983 (when not one show that premiered that year lasted a full season), the Must-See-TV block of sitcoms hit its stride in 1984. It reigned supreme on Thursday nights for well over a decade, helping the network take first place in the ratings several years in a row. This two-hour block of primetime included, over the course of The Eighties and The Nineties, such popular shows as Family Ties (1982–89), Cheers (1982–93), Night Court (1984–92), The Cosby Show (1984–92), Seinfeld (1989–98), Frasier (1993-2004), and Friends (1994-2004). Sadly, however, Tinker never properly enjoyed the trappings of the successes at NBC which he had green lit, having resigned from NBC in 1986 to resume independent production.
However, even as NBC itself recovered, RCA never got better. When General Electric bought them in 1986, it was mainly for NBC. GE promptly sold the consumer and broadcast electronics divisions to French electronics maker Thomson, the transistor and microchip factories to Harris/Intersil, and the music business to what is now Sony Music. NBC gained an owned-and-operated station from GE, in Denver's KCNC-TV (now a CBS O&O due to a transaction involving Philadelphia's WCAU-TV).
2000-present: NBC crashes and burns; the Late Night War; sale to Comcast
After the year 2000, ratings on NBC started to slip across the board, and the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s gave way to years of seemingly intractable poor performance. The once-invincible Thursday night block (currently composed of Community, the U.S. version of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Thirty Rock) now faces stiff competition in the Ratings by Survivor and CSI on CBS and by Grey's Anatomy on ABC, causing the network to slip into fourth place with ratings more like those on The CW than on the other three major networks. However, this comes with a consolation prize: NBC has been praised by viewers and critics for frequently pulling off cases of Network to the Rescue, protecting critically- and cultly-adored shows even if they are struggling in the ratings (as evidenced by how they refused to cancel 30 Rock and The Office in their early seasons). The network seemed to be coming back with the success of Heroes, but a troubled Seasons 2-3 caused the show's ratings to sink like a rock, ultimately turning the big-budget series into a financial vacuum for the network that led to its cancellation after Season 4.
In 2009, in an effort to cut costs and get back on track, NBC made the controversial (and, in hindsight, utterly stupid) decision of giving Jay Leno five Prime Time slots per week for a new Variety Show, The Jay Leno Show. This was the first time that a network scheduled the same show five nights a week since The Fifties, and the response was both immediate and brutal. TV fans cried Ruined FOREVER at NBC's decision, saying that it was a lose-lose situation for both the network and for television in general. If Leno failed, NBC would've surrendered a third of its Prime Time lineup to the network's biggest flop since Supertrain... but if it succeeded, then the other networks, pressed by falling ratings and advertiser revenue, would follow NBC's lead, making even more cuts to scripted programming in favor of more reality shows. Feeling that the loss of only one network was preferable to what they saw as the corruption of the entire TV landscape, many people actively cheered for Leno to fail.
They got their wish the following January when the show's meager, shrinking ratings, combined with fuming network affiliates (who were angry that Leno's poor ratings were dragging down their nightly news broadcasts), pushed NBC to cancel Leno... and move Jay back to 11:35. This led to a massive clash with Tonight Show host Conan O'Brien, who resented that his show would be moved forward by a half-hour to make room for a retooled Leno, which wouldn't help its own struggling ratings situation (which was due to the news, which was due to Leno). O'Brien ultimately left NBC; Leno returned to The Tonight Show in March 2010, but not without becoming one of the most hated men on network television in the process. NBC ended the 2009-10 season in the worst shape it had been in since the 1979-80 season — only one new show (Community) was renewed for a Season 2, while the 2010 Winter Olympics proved to be a quarter-billion-dollar money pit not unlike that of 30 years earlier.
Also in 2009, GE decided it wanted out and put NBC Universal up for sale; in early December, after months of talks, it was announced that Comcast would get 51% of the company (a controlling interest), with GE keeping the rest. The deal was approved by the FCC in January 2011, but with conditions placed on the deal related to Comcast's high-speed Internet service, as well as a promise not to restrict access to Comcast-owned channels to other service providers. NBC will also have to give up its stake in Hulu. It is not yet known whether the sale will help or hurt NBC in its programming ratings; however, an early casualty of the merger was former CEO Jeff Zucker, who bore a lot of the blame for NBC's poor performance in the late 2000s and was a key behind-the-scenes figure in the aforementioned Late-Night Wars.
There are four cable networks bearing the NBC name.
- The first is MSNBC, a 24-Hour News Network. Originally, the MS stood for Microsoft, and the channel flittered through multiple themes trying to find something to hold onto. Currently, and most successfully, it's the left-wing alternative to the Fox News Channel, featuring commentary programs hosted by Rachel Maddow and, formerly, Keith Olbermann. Less successful is their weekend programming, which consists almost of all old episodes of Dateline NBC and Lockup a prison doc show.
- The second is CNBC, the Consumer News and Business Channel (not "Cable NBC") which is 24 hours of financial news on weekdays and infomercials and business documentaries on weekends (when there is no stock market activity). CNBC also predates MSNBC by seven years; it was a relatively unknown and unpopular channel until NBC bought its older and better-known rival, the Financial News Network, out of bankruptcy in 1991.
- Third is the NBC Sports Network, what was known as Versus until the start of 2012 (and until 2005, the Outdoor Life Network). Will be the cable linchpin in NBC's Olympics coverage in the future, and is the main home of the National Hockey League and cycling coverage in the States such as the full run of the Tour de France. While NBC tries to get better sports rights for their new network (by way of Comcast), you mainly know this channel outside of the NHL for airing plenty of outdoor programming like the programs of Bill Dance and Tred Barta, and sports themed movies (expect that last one to go pretty quickly on).
- The last is ShopNBC, which was named "ValueVision" until NBC bought a majority interest in the network. It's not too different from QVC or HSN.
NBC also owns many other channels, among them Syfy, USA (home of shows like Monk and Psych), Bravo, Oxygen, E!, Golf Channel, and The Weather Channel (which is actually a joint venture between NBC Universal and two private equity firms). Through Comcast they also own plenty of regional sports and news networks.
Whereas Touchstone Television and Paramount Television eventually took on corporate names to match their partners (ABC Studios and CBS Television Studios respectively), NBC's in-house productions like Smash and 30 Rock now go out under the Universal Television banner alongside actual Universal-produced series like House MD and Parenthood (as does The Office, a genuine NBC/Universal co-production).
NBC's Olympic coverage
Having sparred with CBS for coverage contracts through The Nineties, NBC has been the American broadcast home for the Olympic Games since 2000, something that they are notoriously bad at. Their coverage of the 1992 Barcelona Games included three pay-per-view channels that most people weren't willing to pay for, and it was suspected that NBC's coverage was deliberately made terrible to get people to buy the package. Though the company's cable sister channels allow for multiple events, their Olympic coverage focuses on sports that have a lot of media attention, or a sport Americans happen to be particularly competitive at. In an average Summer Games, you'll see a lot of Men's Swimming or Women's Gymnastics, not nearly as much Softball or Archery. NBC has been accused of creating a Human Interest Story narrative to competitions, and focusing almost entirely on Team USA to the wide exclusion of other nations. (Their promos for golf's Ryder and Presidents Cups aren't much less partial.) During the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, NBC was also accused of exploiting the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, constantly replaying footage of his fatal crash.
Olympic broadcasts are a textbook example of Old Media Playing Catch Up. They are often Live but Delayed by many, many hours (around 16 hours for the Beijing opening ceremonies) until the American prime time where the most advertising dollars are. NBC recently persuaded the International Olympic Committee to schedule more popular events live at times more acceptable to Americans to avoid spoilers, but even then the east-west time zone delay means three hours between when viewers in New York and those in Los Angeles see the same event — and, hence, news of history being made means that half the country is spoiled. This issue was a huge bone of contention for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, where the West Coast saw events on tape delay that happened in their own time zone! Networks are usually given more leeway when Games are on the other side of the world.
Finding other methods to watch the Olympics is becoming increasingly common among fans, and those in the northern border states just watch the Games from Canada and miss all the squabbling and complaining (thank you, CBC). NBC itself is glad to subsidize this process by maintaining a website where full live video is available...presuming your ISP has paid for the privilege. They own network called Universal Sports which features Olympic sports 24/7, which moved from broadcast digital subchannel distribution at the start of 2012 to cable-only (much to the relief of viewers, as in that guise the video quality seemed to be worse than a web stream due to limited bandwidth). When the United States Olympic Committee dared to suggest they wanted to create their own cable network with Comcast, NBC's whining to daddy (in this case, the International Olympic Committee) made sure that idea was quashed very quickly.
Things may get better soon. After the firing of Dick Ebersol, the new regime at NBC Sports promises that they will no longer delay Olympic programming as in the past. Since NBC Universal just purchased the rights to all Olympic Games through 2020, there is no reason not to be cautiously optimistic. Effectively it did work out in the end for the "Olympic network" idea, as Versus's rebranding into the NBC Sports Network and move of Universal Sports to cable means they have two channels to plug in Olympic events near all the time.
The network also carries a third service on their O&O stations called "NBC Plus", which are the rusting remains of "NBC Weather Plus", an automated weather network which aired as a digital subchannel on their affiliates until the network purchased The Weather Channel in 2008. New York's WNBC has declined to carry the channel in favor of "New York Nonstop", a local-news oriented channel whose formula was later implemented on the network's owned-and-operated stations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, and San Diego.
NBC has also produced a few theatrical movies, but none of them - Code Name: Emerald, Who's Harry Crumb? (a co-production with Tri-Star), Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark, Satisfaction (in partnership with Aaron Spelling, no less) - made much of an impact.
NBC should not be confused with the Nagasaki Broadcasting Corporation, a Japanese TV station sharing the same initials. Also not to be confused with the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation... you know, just in case you do. Or what people in the United States knew mainly as NBC until the 1930's, the National Biscuit Company, or Nabisco.
- indeed, some of RCA's own products, specifically their VHS VCRs, were already being made in Japan by Panasonic
- Basically, his The Tonight Show in a 10:00 PM slot featuring a segment that rips off one from a certain British automotive show.
- After a controversy over filtering of BitTorrent traffic in the late 2000s, there were concerns that Comcast would block or limit access to competing services like Netflix as well.