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The Future of the First American Television Network: NBC

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Tim Arango's compelling front page article in Sunday, January 17, 2010, New York Times, "NBC's Slide from TV Heights," frustrates all of us who understand the vision behind David Sarnoff's struggle to create NBC seventy one years ago. Most importantly, because the network is no longer providing the enduring social values it was created for.

In 1939, at the New York World's Fair, David clearly announced that he envisioned American television becoming "a life changing force" in the world. His speech began like this: "It is with a feeling of humbleness that I come to this moment of announcing the birth... of a new art so important in its implications that it is bound to affect all society. It is an art which shines like a torch of hope in a troubled world. It is a creative force which we must learn to utilize for the benefit of all mankind."

Seventy-one years later, NBC, now a global media corporation, is being purchased for the second time in its young history by a challenging newcomer Comcast and sliding past fourth with no mention in sight as to the original mission of the founder's vision. Since the advent of cable, the active forces of fragmentation have required (though not achieved) that networks provide high-quality content to a wide ranging viewership; a slight divergence from the original model and one that most programming producers seriously overlooked. This history is best told in Ken Auletta's book Three Blind Mice.

In addition to the compelling gale winds that created the two national Spanish-language networks and forced the network onto cable, ratings plummeted, scattering across the ever-growing and culturally diverse Spanish-speaking Americans and redistributing the equally disturbing number of shares into a secondary market with an entirely different set of rules. This new American market had now to accommodate a three-tiered multi-generational Hispanic viewership. Fifteen years ago, these two factors were unaccounted for and unforeseen.

Living a family history all of these years, I believe that David Sarnoff, if alive, would invest heavily in top quality entertainment programming and top notch bi-partisan news analysis for his audiences who were and always will be young adults, families and children. As told to his cousin Dick Baer when writing his biography: this medium "is for the benefit of all mankind" and not as many in the industry would like to believe, the detriment of mankind.

All it would take is a shift in perspective by today's television leaders in order to follow Sarnoff's basic law which states that "the value of a broadcast network is proportional to the number of viewers"; and in so doing the industry would be better served and us the viewers better informed and happily entertained; which is after all the name of the game.