NBC, You Shouldn’t Be In Pictures

Wednesday, Sept. 10

With NBC chief executive Bob Wright icing up the champagne for an imminent merger with Universal, the peacocks are ready to party: Universal’s properties-the cable networks USA and Sci-Fi Channel, and the TV studio that produces Law and Order -look just peachy for NBC’s future. With network TV heading south in the post- Friends years, building cable networks and in-house production is pretty smart. What a system, Michael Powell! As Sony’s Sir Howard Stringer told The New York Times this week, if he’d known it was going to be this easy, he never would have told Larry Tisch to sell CBS.

But then there’s this other thing: Universal Pictures, home of Abbott and Costello, Rock Hudson, Jaws , the fifth-largest movie studio. Why would NBC want to be in the picture business? In all, General Electric is promising around $500 million in added revenues and cost savings from this merger. It could very well be a smash success. On the other hand, NBC is focused on TV, not Hollywood films. And while there are ways the two can synergize, it hasn’t taken on ABC, where the network’s reliance on Disney material has proven a cautionary tale.

NYTV will now bring on John McLaughlin’s voice: “Prediction! NBC will sell Universal Pictures!”

Why?

Until now, NBC has been the only TV network that hasn’t had access to a movie studio. Among the media monsters-Disney, Viacom, AOL Time Warner-the thinking has always been that a Hollywood studio means access to a library, a trove of blockbusters and licensed movie characters that the network and its cable properties can exploit for cheap content to fill hours and hours of air time. Last summer, Universal-owned USA Networks-part of NBC if the deal is sealed-launched “Big Sunday” with a lot of Universal leftovers like Meet the Parents , The Nutty Professor and Hannibal . When USA ran Meet the Parents in June, it was one of highest-rated cable programs that week.

But basic accounting dictates that somebody needs to get paid for these things-perhaps at a discount, but more likely at full price. Universal has to eat, too. The main advantage is easy access. And even if it’s not free, the cash ends up in the same corporate coffers-which, according to Jessica Reif Cohen, the media stock analyst at Merrill Lynch, “makes a bitter pill easier to swallow.”

In theory, NBC could create entire cable networks out of Universal’s library, which is bulging with more than 5,000 films. During the Lew Wasserman years, NBC and MCA were almost incest-cousins, with lots of movies of the week and shows like Night Gallery , where Steven Spielberg got his first assignment. Ted Turner proved this idea a long time ago by buying the MGM library and launching both TNT and Turner Classics, or the Cartoon Network, filled with home-owned Looney Tunes. But the world doesn’t need another TNT. NBC is more likely to drum up more niche networks like Bravo and Sci-Fi, where it can try out new, original programming and cross-pollinate, à la Queer Eye for the Straight Guy .

Another benefit: NBC could create spinoff television shows from Universal movie franchises. With licenses to E.T. and The Terminator , they could do what AOL Time Warner’s WB did with Smallville : turn a Warner Brothers movie franchise- Superman -into a teen-hottie vehicle for the tube. Thus, NBC could make Elliott ‘n’ E.T. or L’il Frankenstein . If those sound awful, so what? Using familiar ideas has never hurt TV and hedges the risk-but unless it’s a big hit, then having easy access to E.T. and Jaws doesn’t mean a whole lot.

Ultimately, we arrive back at that embattled word, synergy. Roughly speaking, it means NBC might be able to improve its margins by creating package deals.

“A hit movie can be a locomotive for a whole TV package,” said Ms. Cohen. “When you’re selling a package of programming in domestic or international markets, they buy TV shows and movies. So a hit movie can go a long way.”

But so far, if ratings and revenue are any measure, ABC has yielded little profit from its association with Disney. CBS is doing great, but is Les Moonves thanking his lucky stars he has access to Paramount? CBS is doing well because of Everybody Loves Raymond , CSI and Survivor , not Jake Gittes, Boy Detective or some free clips of Top Gun from the Paramount library. NBC has outflanked the other networks without a movie studio.

As a stand-alone proposition, Universal Pictures is not a growth business, but a cyclical one-it has good years and bad years. In the last few years, making movies has become less risky, with financially disciplined studios steadying the ship with serial franchises and heavy marketing. They’ve also made the DVD business into a proverbial cash machine by prolonging the money-making life of every movie or character they ever made.

But how does that help NBC grow? NBC doesn’t know the movie business. Given its track record with some other ventures-NBCi or MSNBC-it’s not clear that NBC will know what to do with Universal. Ron Meyer is a very good Hollywood studio chief, but what does that mean for NBC? One Hollywood executive told NYTV that the biggest advantage in owning a movie studio for NBC is access to talent and ideas. Essentially, a Hollywood studio could be worth millions to NBC, or it could be worth zilch. To maximize Universal Pictures, NBC will have to take risks-or else the studio will exist as a provocative appendage to a company that is focused on building a TV empire, a horse-and-sheep marriage. In other words, a distraction.

The movie business is the last entertainment business not yet consolidated, so perhaps it’s only a matter of time before somebody starts rolling up the studios. NBC could very well do it if it had the will. But is that a risk that 60-year-old Mr. Wright-a man who can secure his legacy with a great win-win TV deal-wants to do with his remaining years as chief executive?

As for those Universal Studios theme parks NBC may be inheriting-anybody for a ride on the “Willard Scott’s Wild Ride Log Flume”? Or “Gene Shalit’s House of Nose Hair?” Tonight, take the ride, sans flume, with NBC Nightly News . [WNBC, 4, 6:30 p.m.]

Thursday, Sept. 11

For evidence that life does indeed move on, tonight UPN premieres its new sitcom, The Mullet s. And Loni Anderson, the Pamela Anderson of a more innocent age, is back. The jiggly Jennifer Marlowe from WKRP in Cincinnati and former Burt Reynolds flame called NYTV from the set of the show, about a couple of wrestling-fanatic brothers who live with their saucy mother, played by Ms. Anderson. The boys have mullets.

“I’m from Minnesota, and I know a lot of guys with mullets,” said Ms. Anderson. “Since I’ve gotten this show, I seem to notice them everywhere I go, whereas before I wasn’t aware of them. They’re making a cult comeback. We’re on the cutting edge of some trend.

“We’re in the middle of a big wrestling-match scene in the backyard, and I get in the ring with the boys,” she said. “It’s a very physical scene. We’re the only half hour on TV that employees a full-time stunt coordinator.”

Ms. Anderson has had two breast reductions since WKRP . In the 1990’s, her work consisted mainly of some made-for-TV movies and skin-care infomercials. Hunting for her next career move, she came upon the script for The Mullets -conceived by two Simpsons producers, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein-and got very excited.

“I wanted something that makes me laugh out loud,” she said. “I called my agent and said, ‘Get me in there. I want this show.'”

Loni, when’s the WKRP reunion?

“We all e-mail and call and keep in contact, and I would say we get together for lunch or dinner three times a year,” she said. “As a cast, we’ve all thought it was a great idea, but our creator, Hugh Wilson … wants it to stand alone for what it was.”

How about Stroker Ace 2 ?

Doesn’t Universal own that? Loni, call Bob Wright! [WWOR, 9, 9:30 p.m.]

Friday, Sept. 12

When NYTV saw former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger being photographed with Tina Brown at a recent cocktail party, we asked ourselves: Is the former secretary a war criminal? We never would have considered this had we not seen The Trials of Henry Kissinger -inspired by the writings of Christopher Hitchens-which airs tonight on the Sundance Channel. Tonight, Mr. Hitchens vs. the talented Dr. Kissinger. [Sundance, 101, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, Sept. 13

Tonight, Sammy Davis Jr. sings “Without a Song” on The Ed Sullivan Show . Dead for 29 years, and Ed still gets all the best stars. [WLIW, 21, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, Sept. 14

HBO’s Carnivàle debuts tonight, which follows a Depression-era carnival as it travels the Dust Bowl of Midwestern America. Heading the cast of carnies is Nick Stahl, who played a mid-20’s version of Edward Furlong’s John Connor in this summer’s nonstarter Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines , and Clancy Brown, the steel-faced prison guard from The Shawshank Redemption .

But carnivals need freaks, and John Fleck plays freaks. “I just sent them my tape,” he told NYTV. Mr. Fleck holds the distinction of being one of only two actors to appear in all incarnations of the modern-day Star Trek TV series. During his tenure, he played a variety of freaks from outer space.

“I’m kind of a freak trying to make it big in the Hollywood carnival. I’m so jaded in this business, I’m waiting every week for them to turn me into a pair of alligator shoes,” said Mr. Fleck, a youthful 52. A former member of a group called the N.E.A. Four, he garnered some ill fame in 1990 for a scene in which he urinated onstage while reading a Bible. On Oct. 2, he’ll perform at La MaMa Etc. in the East Village in a show entitled Nothin’ Beats Pussy . Mr. Fleck workshopped the show in New York and Pittsburgh before a trial run in Los Angeles. He explained the title: “My father said to me, ‘You’re not a fruit, are you?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Let me tell you something: Nothing beats a pussy.’

“I’m trying to be this guy my father wanted me to be-a big movie star. He was a veteran; he had his American Legion buddies and went fishing all the time,” he said. “My father drank a lot. We’re going to be giving out highballs to the people that come in.

“My work is geared toward straight women,” Mr. Fleck continued. “I can read right through a woman’s eyes, so to speak. In Hollywood, I’m typecast as a freak and a fag. I make money here, and I go to New York and do my performance art. New York just charges my batteries.” [HBO, 32, 9:35 p.m.]

-John Gallagher

Monday, Sept. 15

Paula Zahn’s new prime-time show on CNN, Paula Zahn Now , is a week old today, but Ms. Zahn’s biggest fan is also marking a very special anniversary. As of October, Patrick Thornton, a 37-year-old data researcher in San Francisco, has been running the Unofficial Paula Zahn Pages for five years now!

Impressive. But why Paula Zahn?

“I think, for me, it’s sort of the stunning combination of things in her case,” said Mr. Thornton. “She is an intelligent, articulate and successful journalist and seems to really care about people. I picked up on that, especially with her special-interest interviews. The way she conducts herself in her private life is a role model. I think she is, of course, extremely beautiful.”

In 1993, while Ms. Zahn was working mornings on CBS, Mr. Thornton wrote her a letter and she wrote him back. That sent his HTML heart pit-pattering. Not only does the site include a section about her cello career-a nice shot of Ms. Zahn nobly playing the instrument along to some sheet music-but it is available for viewing in light purple, peach and light blue.

Ms. Zahn’s ratings haven’t been too good lately, so Mr. Thornton has urged Zahn fans to support her in this time of need. Has Ms. Zahn dropped him a line lately?

“No, she hasn’t,” he said. “I don’t do it for that reason. I can only hope that she is happy with it.”

She is, Mr. Thornton! A CNN spokesperson confirmed that “Paula saw the site today and was flattered.”

NYTV-we make dreams come true. [CNN, 10, 8 p.m.]