Bravo! NBC has a cable net

Having seen other networks stumble, though, execs don't intend to move too fast

Now that NBC has planted its flag on Bravo, the entertainment outlet it has been hankering for, don't expect a slash-and-burn operation. NBC might be the last broadcaster to scoop up an entertainment-based cable network, but it has learned from watching its rivals falter.

Parent General Electric Inc. is plunking down $1.25 billion to buy a network everyone has heard of but not many watch. Artsy Bravo, with a median age in the mid 50s, would seem ripe for an overhaul.

However, GE Vice Chairman and NBC Chairman Bob Wright says he's happy keeping Bravo an upscale, high-brow arts-and-entertainment channel. "There's no emergency surgery needed here," he said, adding firmly, "This is not going to be a repurposing network."

Some cable networks changed radically when they joined up with broadcasters. When Viacom turned to MTV Networks to remake old-skewing The Nashville Network, the result was the TNN: The National
Network, a wrestling-fueled young-male entertainment service. Disney is erasing the "family" from ABC Family in favor of comedies and reality shows that appeal to 18- to 34-year-olds.

"Bravo should be kept as a high-level niche," said Horizon Media EVP Aaron Cohen. "That's where cable does best and where NBC can get the most value of out of Bravo."

Here's what you can
expect out of an NBC-owned Bravo, before too long:

Jeff Gaspin, VH1 veteran and NBC executive vice president, alternative series and long-form programming, has been given the job of developing Bravo programming and would like to move toward producing original movies, but scripted drama is out for now. In time, though, he dreams, original Bravo movies could replay on NBC. "I'm not going to make any money," he said, "but I can get people talking." He used that tactic at VH1.

He also sees Bravo as a home for reality and documentaries. "As I've been getting reality pitches in the last few months, I've been thinking, 'It's not right for the network but could be right for Bravo.'"

Gaspin is also bullish on creating companion programming for NBC specials, like the Golden Globes, and reality shows.

Some of NBC's plans are hypothetical. Here's one: Say NBC's new Sunday-night drama American Dreams
started slowly but NBC was sure it should be a hit. Gaspin suggests that Bravo could, by December or so, package the first several episodes of American Dreams
and run it as a cable marathon.

Bravo, of course, could eventually be a programming outlet for NBC's young production arm, NBC Studios, whose head, Ted Harbert, was unavailable for comment.

In the best of all worlds, a cable network can be like a very good farm team: "If you're a good programmer, you have more programming ideas than you do room on your network," said Morgan Stanley media analyst Rich Bilotti. In other words, NBC could pass off programming costs by repurposing shows or buying syndication rights for Bravo. And it could test on Bravo programs that could move on to NBC.

"Other networks have misstepped and are starting to rethink the relationship," noted Kathryn Thomas, associate director of entertainment for Starcomm Entertainment. "NBC is trying to prove there's a viable model worth pursuing."

FX, for instance, was spawned to complement Fox, but there has been little interplay. The nets have separate executive ranks and little cross-promotion. (Sharing NASCAR and Fox's 24
is the exception. FX reruns the show for about $100,000 an episode, helping defray expenses and giving the Fox play added exposure.) And the concept of a cable net's becoming the old-age home for studio hits has been disproved at FX, which would probably love to dump the off-nets it bought from sister studio Twentieth Television: Reruns of Ally McBeal
and The Practice
have been a ratings disaster.

CBS rarely plugs its cable partners, even when its sister network MTV has a wildly successful show like The Osbournes.

ABC Family was acquired, in part, to rehash ABC programming. Its early schedules filled up with random ABC product from crime drama Alias
to old TGIF comedies. Only recently, with ABC Family President Angela Shapiro (an ABC veteran) in control, has the network been repurposing shows with any sort of strategy in mind.

NBC should have an easier go working with Bravo than it has with Paxson Communications. NBC owns 32% of the Pax network and stations, and the two originally planned to share shows. (Weakest Link
did get Pax play.) The relationship effectively crumbled after NBC bought Telemundo last year and Pax took legal steps to get out of the NBC deal.

Broadcast affiliates get edgy when their networks scoop up cable outlets, but "it's a fact of life that the networks are going to do this," said Jim Keelor, president of Liberty Corp., whose 14 stations include eight NBC affiliates.

NBC execs have already gone on the offensive. "We reassured them this isn't going to be NBC2 branded with the peacock," said NBC Entertainment chief Jeff Zucker, who will also oversee Bravo. In fact, NBC says it's keeping the Bravo moniker.

Bravo needs work, though. Currently, it sits in the basement of cable Nielsen ratings, averaging 0.3 in prime time. It counts about 60 million viewing homes but draws only about 220,000 households per night.

NBC can afford to be patient. As far as cable networks go, Bravo came with a reasonable price tag.

Last year, Disney coughed up $5.2 billion last year for the former Fox Family Channel, a price even Disney Chairman Michael Eisner admits was too high. That translates to about $45 to $50 per subscriber; Bravo is going for about $18 per sub. However, the price also translates into a high 24 times Bravo's running-rate operating cash flow. GE is paying Cablevision about $1 billion in NBC's Cablevision stock and GE shares for Cablevision's 80% stake in Bravo (see below).

What Bravo really needs is a show that NBC can expose, like Forensic Files. Court TV's original series just finished a limited play on NBC, for which Court TV got two 15 second spots per episode on NBC.

"The promotional success can't be underestimated," said Court TV President Henry Schleiff. "You can draw a direct line between the growth in our ratings and the promotional value from NBC."

It's too early to talk about Bravo product on NBC, though. Bravo earns some of its highest Nielsen marks from venerable Inside the Actors Studio, but it would seem that show's major value to NBC is as fodder for sketches on Saturday Night Live.

Gaspin desperately wants a Bravo show or concept that can work on NBC, too. "There are personalities and germs of ideas that work," said the former music-channel programmer, "but it's not like there's a Behind the Music."