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How To Revive A Dinosaur

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These are trying times for NBC. Only a couple of years ago, the network was the undisputed Goliath among the broadcast TV networks, with shows like Friends, ER, Frasier, and the various Law and Order franchises dominating the prime time ratings. Of late, though, NBC has fallen to third place on the ratings totem pole, below CBS and ABC. And while new series such as the phenomenal Heroes may signal a reversal of the network's fortunes, execs there are conceding "must see TV" ain't what it used to be.

Last month, NBC announced sweeping realignments that included major cutbacks in their news department, as well as a shift in their primetime strategy. The opening 8PM (EST) slot will be relegated to game shows along the lines of Deal or No Deal, and low cost reality series. It's a risky gambit at best. While lower cost programming may increase ad revenue in the short term, it could place the Peacock in a precarious position. By eliminating sitcoms and dramas from the opening slot, the network may find itself scrambling for a series potent enough to stand on its own without a strong lead-in.

NBC Universal remains undaunted, however. Their new business plan, dubbed NBCU 2.0, recognizes the limitations of broadcast TV in the new landscape of ad revenue, and refocuses the network's direction to the frontier of digital distribution. “Success in this business means quickly adjusting to and anticipating change. This initiative is designed to help us exploit technology and focus our resources, as we continue our transformation into a digital media company for the 21st century,” said Bob Wright, chairman and CEO of NBC U, in an official press release.

A part of that transformation was the November 9 launch of DotComedy, a broadband channel drawing on NBC's "rich heritage of comedy," according to Jeff Gaspin, President, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, Digital Content and Cross-Network Strategy. ( I have to wonder. . . can he actually remember that entire title?) While the content of the site is hardly groundbreaking, it may afford a glimpse into the future of network television. All the networks, including the basic cable outlets such as Comedy Central and the Cartoon Network, have utilized the Internet to promote their product for some time now, even offering full episodes of series via the Web. But with DotComedy, NBC Digital has upped the ante, offering original programming exclusive to the Internet.

I've been casually poking about DotComedy for the past week, and it looks promising. Mind you, I said promising, not great. True, it does offer some original programming, ranging from the puerile ("Double Dragon") to the slapstick ("Easter Bunny Begins") to the outright funny ("The Quest for Length") in its "Digital Shows" section. That's offset, though, by the "TV and Movies" page, which exists as a promo for SNL and upcoming Universal theatrical comedy releases. "Stand Up Straight" serves up, as one might expect, stand-up comedy clips, and "Totally Viral" is a smorgasboard of videos in the vein of YouTube. "Sitcom Flashback", I think, has the potential to lure repeat visits. Besides episodes of old standbys Leave It to Beaver and The Munsters, it goes deeper into the archives to offer episodes from cult classics like Dream On and Significant Others. There's also a "User Made" section, parked for now, vacant as it awaits submissions.

Bearing in mind that DotComedy is taking its first faltering steps, it's not too shabby. NBC is promising more original content before year's end, as well as clips from David Letterman's years there, among other classic comedy from their extensive vaults. It's evolving, slowly but surely, as it updates daily. Its success or failure hinges on just how far the network execs are willing to take it. If they play it safe, DotComedy has little chance of succeeding. With bandwidth and time at a premium, Web users are unlikely to make the site a destination location. Done properly, however, it has the potential to pioneer the convergence of traditional and digital delivery of entertainment.

That convergence,  talked about for years, but never realized, translates into an entirely new platform from which advertisers can hawk their wares. And it's something for which they've been clamoring for at least the past decade. The decline in profits that traditional broadcast and print media have fallen victim to can be directly attributed to their reliance on time-worn methods of doing business. By extension, it helps to explain why profits are down almost across the board for manufacturers and retailers nationwide.

What NBC has done with DotComedy is open a new vista that could potentially have an unparallelled effect on media as we currently think of it. By putting their brand on a stand alone internet venture (albeit still a promotional tool for the parent company), they've taken the pioneering step of cross-referencing media. Whether DotComedy succeeds is almost irrelevant. A floodgate has been opened, and the convergence of media is set to sail.

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About Ray Ellis