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A Surprising Threat for NBC:Lofty Expectations

This really may be my favorite time of the year. Daylight is slowly creeping its way into the evenings, the best issue of Sports Illustrated bounces its way to newsstands, and best of all, baseball’s spring training gets underway.

For us Minnesotans, spring training signals there is only another four or five months of winter left. But for sports fans, it’s about a brand new season for your Local Nine, and dreams of Jack Buck’s kid calling your team’s games in November.

Of course at the outset of the season, not every team has World Series aspirations. While the evil empire from The Bronx knows it will buy its way into the playoffs, and many other teams expect to compete for the postseason, that is not the case for everyone. Teams in Kansas City and Pittsburgh set out knowing that if they win more games than they lose, everyone will call it a job well done. And let’s not get started on delusional Mets and Cubs fans.

So a season in which a team wins 81 games and also loses 81 would be considered a disaster for some teams and a coup for others. Thus is the game of expectations, where the higher the bar, the tougher it is to be considered a success.

Which leads me to a strange issue surrounding NBC’s struggling primetime. Undoubtedly, the network’s fortunes in the daypart are a mess.As New York magazine’s Joe Adalian pointed out recently, since Sunday Night Football went into its offseason, NBC’s numbers have been sacked even harder, leaving a virtual afterthought called Harry’sLaw as its top performer.

One year ago, this would be business as usual at the last-place network. Under the old management, no one would be expecting anything different. NBC would just be judged on its recent past performance, and dismissed as a struggling network that basically needed to get lucky and find a single hit to begin the climb back from the bottom.

Today, that is not the case. Not since Steve Burke and Bob Greenblatt were installed to run the network. While they are not expected to turn things around today, there is absolutely an expectation that Team Comcast will breathe new life into NBC. And that means the bar for success has been raised. Yes, NBC might actually have a new problem: Everyone is now expecting the ship to be righted. And that may not be realistic anytime soon.

If you ask virtually anyone around the industry, they will gush about Burke and Greenblatt and say Comcast couldn’t have a better team in charge of Operation Fix the Peacock, or whatever the logo is now. They rave about Burke’s background and pedigree in the television business, and Greenblatt’s creativity and relationships as being exactly what NBC needs.

I hear that narrative a lot from execs at NBC’s rivals, and always wonder if they are consciously trying to raise expectations for NBC. If so, it is working. There is almost a sense of inevitability that Comcast will turn things around.

And that’s the challenge. It’s also why, if I am the folks at Comcast–NBC, I would be doing everything I could to lower those expectations, fast.

I’d be talking up things like what I’ve heard, which is that Greenblatt wasn’t a huge fan of the existing development slate at NBC. And while I am sure he was quietly talking to writers and eyeballing projects before his hiring became official, the argument can absolutely be made that this development cycle will not be fully his.

Another point is that network TV as a whole is not exactly pumping out hits, so turning around an entire schedule that is very light on assets is going to take time, meaning years. Burke smartly made that point last week with analysts. NBC just needs to start with one home run. Heck, even a solid double would be a beginning.

Much like at baseball diamonds all over Florida and Arizona, a new day is dawning at NBC, a new Field of Dreams. I find myself also expecting Burke, Greenblatt and the Comcast team to prop up the network. Imagine—everyone is expecting NBC to succeed. Living up to that foreign feeling could be the network’s toughest test yet.

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