NBC Finally Pays the Price

By Chez Pazienza: 1978′s Force Ten from Navarone wasn’t really a great movie; it certainly suffered from being a sequel to a much better movie, 1961′s The Guns of Navarone, starring Gregory Peck and David Niven. Yet still it holds a bit of a place in my heart simply because I saw it when I was a kid and enjoyed it thoroughly if for no other reason than the fact that as an eight-year-old I was basking in the glow of Star Wars and believed that Harrison Ford — who had a starring role in Force Ten — could do no wrong.

Oddly, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this movie lately, mostly because of its central set piece, which involves the detonation of a dam in World War II-torn Yugoslavia that eventually leads to the destruction of a supposedly impregnable bridge the Germans are using to provide troops and supplies to the war effort. Basically, what happens is that the characters of Mallory and Miller, played by Robert Shaw and Edward Fox, plant charges and blow the dam from the inside out, which causes the water it’s holding back to break through and rush violently against the bridge downriver, collapsing it.

The thing is, when the charges first go off, nothing happens. The dam still stands as Mallory and Miller run to get out of it. In fact, there’s frustration among rest of the allied strike force that the mission might be a complete failure, seeing as how the explosives seemed to have no effect on the dam. It isn’t until many minutes later that alarms go off, the dam begins to quake and crack, and water from the other side starts gushing through it, bringing it down piece by piece. The charges worked, it just took a little while — because the reality is that all you had to do was weaken the dam in the right places, and after that nature would take its course.

For the past few years now I’ve been chronicling the near-sociopathic arrogance of NBC’s management, detailing each time the suits at 30 Rock — news guys like Steve Capus, Phil Griffin, and Jim Bell and former programming gods Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman — made a decision so inexplicably ridiculous or unforgivably obscene that it threatened to put the reputation of the entire network in jeopardy. I admit that there were several times that I truly thought NBC would suffer immediate audience blowback for its sins, but strangely it never really did; yes, there was some bad press from the likes of me and other more prominent media critics, but in the end business went on as usual for the peacock. And I think ultimately that’s what emboldened the executive assholes at NBC: Each time they did something inexcusable and didn’t face the instant wrath of the viewing public — the kind of outrage that threatened their bottom line — they simply smirked and moved on, believing they were bulletproof and that nothing they did could permanently damage the NBC brand.

Bombarding viewers with insipid, lowest-common-denominator programming? No big deal. Airing the ghastly final videotaped manifesto of Virginia Tech Killer Seung-Hui Cho? So what. Botching the departure of Jay Leno then firing Conan O’Brien and publicly trashing him just seven months into his stint on The Tonight Show so that they could bring Leno back? Bring it on. Canning Ann Curry after fourteen years on the Today show and just one in the anchor chair, then basically putting a target on Savannah Guthrie’s back right off the bat? “Whatever! I do what I want!”

Here’s the thing, though: While independently each of these things wasn’t enough to do any serious damage to NBC, together they all have had an impact. Even if, again, it’s as simple as having giving the management behind these decisions the false bravado to believe that they had the authority to operate with impunity. The last personnel shake-up in particular — the one involving Ann Curry — has proven itself to be a staggeringly ill-advised overreach on the part of Capus, Bell and the rest of the Today show execs.

A story by the AP published just a couple of days ago details how audiences are abandoning the former morning news juggernaut in droves and how many say it’s because of NBC’s deplorable treatment of Curry, who may not have been everyone’s favorite news-reader but who worked hard for her shot at the main anchor chair and who remained loyal as a dog throughout her career at NBC. Morning television is a truly unique animal and NBC had dominated it for almost two decades by playing up its Today show crew as members of every American’s family. It wasn’t simply brilliant marketing; when you consider the camaraderie, liveliness, passion and genuine news savvy demonstrated by Today’s team, it was kind of the truth. But then NBC management, reassured by the lack of predicted devastation in the wake of the Conan O’Brien debacle, decided to not only dismiss but publicly flog a member of that family. It made NBC’s suits look like monsters, its promotion of the Today show crew look like bullshit, and the show itself look like just another cynically manufactured TV product. And so viewers left. And then haven’t come back.

Granted it’s not simply the crew that’s changed, nor the attitude of NBC toward that crew — and by extension the audience — it’s Today’s decision to air personality and pop culture-driven crap over actual information (again a product of management hubris and myopia). Think about it: If you can really air an interview with Kris Jenner in which she incessantly plugs her horrid family’s reality show and prattles on about her breast implants instead of cutting away to the national moment of silence on 9/11, you deserve whatever thrashing you get from the audience and the media. This is the new model of NBC morning programming, though — and between it and the network’s abiding belief that it can arrogantly and wantonly screw over its talent and draw the outrage of its viewers, NBC may finally be suffering some of the serious, lasting consequences that it foolishly believed it was immune to.

The network should have known it had it coming.

NBC’s management has spent years detonating charges in the dam. It was only a matter of time before nature took its course.

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