THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The NBC Strategy to Save America

General Electric must be pinching itself right now: it's about to unload its share of NBC-Universal on Comcast. Ostensibly, it's win-win for both sides: GE dumps an underperforming albatross, while Comcast becomes a media conglomerate that almost rivals Rupert Murdoch's empire, only without those pesky, antiquated newspapers Rupert is so fond of.

Even antitrust advocates know they're tilting at windmills in trying to block this: Too Big To Fail is the way to go these days.

And certainly, Comcast/NBC-Universal will be too big. But to fail? NBC practically owns the playbook for failure these days.

In the past decade, NBC has transformed itself from the No. 1 broadcast network into an afterthought, an industry laughingstock mired in fourth place -- last place, that is, unless you count The CW, and pretty much no one does anymore -- and defined by its mediocrity. Coincidentally, also in the past decade, America has transformed itself from the most powerful country on the planet to one crippled by a punishingly dysfunctional economy and petty bipartisan bickering, defined pretty much by its mediocrity.

So while NBC can scarcely be considered an industry leader these days, it does appear to be the primary inspiration for the American government's policies, a template for fiasco that our leaders have followed assiduously. Congress has become the political equivalent of NBC's Knight Rider remake: willfully stupid, hyperbolic, irrelevant and over-stuffed with inane gimmicks. The Biggest Loser has been the constituency politicians pretend to look out for.

For the purposes of our rhetorical exercise, let's examine how NBC's disastrous missteps have uncannily informed governmental policy, shall we? No? Well, tough, because that's all I've got.

  1. Reward failure with upward mobility.

    NBC: Jeff Zucker ran NBC Entertainment from 2000 to 2005. In that period, he managed to develop precisely zero new hit sitcoms for the network that once was the standard-bearer for smart comedy, and his programming struck many critics and viewers as sheer torture. NBC plunged from first to fourth in the ratings, ruining the network's once-stellar reputation and torpedoing his network's financial stability. His arrogant swagger remained intact, however, and for his journeyman-like efforts, Zucker was promoted to network CEO in 2005, and then was named President and CEO of both the network and all its cable channels in 2007. So, essentially, despite crippling a once-proud media empire and having no quantifiable achievements to point to, Zucker was kicked upstairs and given exponentially more power.

    America: After somehow managing to drive a Texas oil company into the ground (with nary a financial gusher to show for his efforts), George W. Bush was allowed to run the United States of America from 2001 to 2008. In that period, he managed to plunge the country into at least one ill-conceived war, ruined the country's once-stellar reputation with the rest of the planet and torpedoed his nation's financial stability. For his journeyman-like efforts, Bush was re-elected President in 2004, and his arrogant swagger remained intact despite crippling a once-proud global empire. He was kicked upstairs, to the role of elder statesman capable of pulling in huge fees for delivering speeches and writing a memoir, even though he betrayed no articulacy in his time in office.

    So, according to NBC, in order to save an empire, you put an incompetent in charge and wait for the magic to happen. And if you're America, you pretty much do the same.

  2. Bring in a young, relatively inexperienced guy who talks a good game to mop up the mess left by his predecessor.

    NBC: Chose Ben Silverman, a guy whose resume was filled with producing credits of remakes of popular overseas sitcoms and reality shows, as the face of its entertainment division. The number of self-aggrandizing glossy-magazine profiles he inspired far outpaced the number of successful TV shows he was responsible for; he was better known for his partying than for his executive prowess and quickly and quietly disappeared from sight.

    America: Elected Barack Obama President after giving a series of pretty speeches and spending a little time hanging out in the Senate. The number of glossy-magazine profiles he inspired far outpaced the Americans he got back into the work force; he allowed key legislation to be watered down by Republicans (who huffily refused to vote for it anyway) and had a beer with a black guy and a white cop. But at least he kept giving pretty speeches.

  3. Try to fix things on the cheap.

    NBC: To curb production expenses, the network introduced The Jay Leno Show, an inexpensive prime-time variety-talk hour that pretty much no one watches. You get what you pay for.

    America: To curb costs in responding to the financial meltdown, Congress slashed billions of dollars from the stimulus package, including much earmarked for job-creating infrastructure projects. The percentage of unemployed/underemployed has risen to 17.5% since. In this case, you don't even get what you pay for.

  4. Favor the rich guy over the little people.

    NBC: I hate to keep picking on Jay Leno, but everyone else is, so: Leno makes somewhere north of $30 million a year (and his show is still cheaper than regular programming), while his show serves to supplant some 1,000 actors, writers and crew members who would be working on the series that would be airing if Leno was still in late-night.

    America: Drafted bankruptcy legislation favoring banks over working stiffs, and then, when the banks failed anyway, bailed out the banks, leaving no-longer-working stiffs out in the cold.

  5. Create stupid programs with grimly ironic names.

    NBC: My Own Worst Enemy. The Biggest Loser. Trauma.

    America: "No Child Left Behind." "The Clear Skies Initiative." "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

See? Politics is just like show business.