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Trio Is Truly Solo

On Jan. 1, I bid a sad goodbye to Trio. DirecTV no longer had room for the terrific pop-culture channel among its hundreds of networks, most of which I never watch. And forget about the crummy cable system in my area. Cablevision can accommodate half a dozen shopping channels, but in my neighborhood, you can't even get FX, much less Trio. No wonder there's saber rattling in Washington about making cable companies offer programming á la carte. No wonder the telcos, as they ramp up to compete with cable and satellite, are talking about letting their customers choose off a menu of channels to construct the system they want.

That is small consolation, though, as I go through Trio withdrawal. No more Brilliant But Cancelled, the series that resurrected all those lost TV gems (like, say, Action, the acid-tongued send-up of Hollywood that ran briefly on Fox in 1999), as well as such hugely entertaining stuff as vintage Late Night with David Letterman and mind-bending reruns of that '70s classic, Battle of the Network Stars. (See Robert Stack take a drag off a cigarette before running a 100-yard dash!)

DirecTV booted Trio because the network's parent, NBC Universal, couldn't cut a deal that would save half of the network's estimated 22 million subscribers. If NBC Universal had come to an agreement with DirecTV and put some marketing muscle behind Trio, the company might have had another viable network in its cable stable. Instead, the media giant seems inexplicably content to watch Trio wither away. Trio President Lauren Zalaznick already serves in the same role for Bravo, and other key personnel are likewise being pressed into double duty—or they've already gone elsewhere.

Trio was a tiny part of the package of entertainment properties, including USA Network and the Sci Fi Channel, that NBC snared with the acquisition of Vivendi Universal last spring. The network has never managed to get much attention from the new owners. Off the record, NBC Universal execs plead that they have too many fires to put out with their blue-chip franchises to give Trio the nurturing it needs. USA and Sci Fi may be fine, but CNBC is in trouble, MSNBC is a cable news also-ran, and Bravo's makeover is still a work in progress. And then there's the flagship, NBC. The Peacock's long reign as the No. 1 network with the demographic groups that matter has come to an end. Even money-making machine Today has lost some luster. “With all the stuff they're dealing with on the 52nd floor of 30 Rock, you think they have time to deal with this little pisher network?” says one NBC Universal exec when the subject of Trio comes up.

Also working against Trio: a camp at 30 Rock that regards it as purely a critics' darling. The network's distribution might have been beefed up long before coming aboard NBC Universal, the reasoning goes, if it had merited the resources. But that's a cheap shot. Vivendi's support was always scant, at best. The place was run on a shoestring—at its height, Trio had less than 40 employees. Still, with innovative promotion and smart programming done dirt cheap, the network got noticed by the chattering class. But its corporate masters had already put their entertainment holdings on the block, and there just wasn't much incentive to leverage the buzz into sales on more cable systems.

So Trio limps into the New Year with its circulation chopped in half, an inspired programming laboratory on the verge of going under. In an era where dozens of startup channels are struggling to find any distribution at all, NBC Universal has an extremely worthy one that until a few days ago was in more than 20 million homes. With a little muscle and money, who knows how much further it might have gone? Brilliant but cancelled, indeed.