One day before NBC will attempt the most ambitious reinvention in recent television history, you are reminded of one thing.
It wasn't always like this.
There was a time, not long ago, when those three letters were not a shorthand punch line for network TV dysfunction.
This was before the network kicked Jay Leno out of The Tonight Show at the height of his success, only to plop him back in a year later in a painfully slow, painfully public backtrack — ousting successor Conan O'Brien and threatening the future of NBC's 56-year-old late-night franchise in the process.
Remember how Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier and The Cosby Show created a new niche of urban, yuppiefied comedy? Or how ER, The West Wing, Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Street practically reinvented how the modern TV drama looked and felt?
As Leno returns to The Tonight Show on Monday and a new spate of shows debuts this week in prime time, the question looms:
How did the network of Must-See TV become the home of nothing special?
Some experts say NBC is in the midst of a historic identity crisis — an inability to find a new vision for its brand in an era where even the smallest cable channels have an ironfisted grasp of their style and target audience.
"It's more important to know who you are now than it was 20 years ago when Must-See TV was first built," said Tim Brooks, a retired TV executive who has worked at Lifetime, USA Network and NBC. "Watching well-off singles in the city having sex with each other doesn't resonate the way it did 20 years ago. And they have not really latched onto anything else since then."
Bill Cosby leads the way to Must-See TV
CBS is so focused on cop shows such as CSI and NCIS, it might as well be called the Crime Broadcasting System. ABC offers female-centered series such as Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives. Fox is younger and edgy, like a well-placed elbow in the ribs, with spicy shows such as House, Family Guy and The Simpsons.
But what is NBC's identity? The Biggest Loser, NFL games on Sunday nights, 30 Rock and two different permutations of Law & Order's 20-year-old crime franchise?
John Miller, chief marketing officer for NBC Universal Television Group, said the network's brand comes down to three ideas: "positive," "human" and "inherently ingenious." "We try to say, 'What is the NBC twist on the show? . . . What is that element of quality that we've always had?' "
Still, the last time things looked this bad for NBC, Brooks worked there. It was back in 1981, when the network was placing third out of three and its best-known shows were Little House on the Prairie and Diff'rent Strokes.
In desperation, the network hired respected producer Grant Tinker (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as chairman, developing a slew of creatively fresh but low-rated series, including St. Elsewhere and a sitcom called Family Ties, starring a young talent named Michael J. Fox. Tinker's high-minded focus nearly didn't work — the network almost canceled Cheers after its first, dismally rated season — until comic Bill Cosby caught fire in 1984 with a little comedy called The Cosby Show.
"Magically, these other shows took off in the glow of Cosby," said Brooks. Later, NBC lined them up in a powerful Thursday night schedule dubbed Must-See TV that dominated network television for the next 20 years. "It started to create a sense of destination at NBC as a place where you had really smart contemporary programming."
A cycle began: Family Ties begat Seinfeld, which led to Friends, and more. But when Friends and Frasier ended their runs, NBC executives hadn't found a new attitude or hit shows to replace them. (30 Rock and The Office, while respected, don't draw nearly enough audience.)
By the time NBC moved Leno to 10 p.m., industry experts assumed the network was more interested in making short-term profits with a cheap talk show than finding a new, long-term identity.
Looking for a hit — and it better be soon
Mitch Metcalf insists he doesn't feel like a guy who has been an industry punching bag for months.
But everyone from David Letterman to the co-hosts of The View has criticized NBC's treatment of Leno, O'Brien and its prime-time schedule. And as the executive vice president of program planning and scheduling, Metcalf has been on the front lines for much of the blowback.
"(Leno) was a gutsy move, (but) it might have been too much too fast," he said. "The fact is, for the past few years, we haven't put on enough shows that have sparked with the audience. But the great thing is now, internally, we know where we're headed."
A look at next week's schedule provides some clues: Law & Order lands on Mondays, while spinoff Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesday. Both are aging dramas with diminished viewership. Tuesdays feature Parenthood, an ambitious version of a 20-year-old movie that NBC already tried to remake back in 1990 (with a young Leo DiCaprio and David Arquette, no less).
Thursdays has The Marriage Ref, an unscripted show developed by Jerry Seinfeld featuring a panel of celebrities debating a married couple's petty arguments. And Fridays at 8 p.m. features Friends alum Lisa Kudrow's unscripted genealogy show, Who Do You Think You Are?
Even Metcalf admitted lowered expectations for this schedule, cobbled together quickly after Leno's 10 p.m. cancellation and promoted relentlessly during the Winter Olympics. Citing the network's development deals with big names such as J.J. Abrams (Lost) and Jerry Bruckheimer (CSI), Miller repeated a typical network TV boast: Just wait until this fall.
"Television is about incremental gains," Metcalf said, "finding one or two signature shows that redefine a network's direction."
In other words, the NBC brand these days is mostly about finding a new hit. Soon.
As a possible solution, Brooks suggested NBC take a look at its biggest competitor: cable TV.
"USA has all these light kinds of dramas that draw a chuckle; Burn Notice, White Collar, Psych . . . why not become the funnier nephew of those crime dramas on CBS?" he said. "They sold Jay Leno (at 10 p.m.) well, but when you got to the show, it was like an old shoe. Maybe they should put the marketing department in charge of finding a new tone."
Given that NBC's last successful reinvention grew out of its last creative slump, perhaps now the network can try anything.
After all, when you're on the ground, just about any move is a step up.
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.