NBC officials last week vowed they wouldn't turn Bravo into "NBC2," or a dumping ground for "repurposed" programming from the Peacock Network.
But some cable operators sound skeptical. They plan to remember NBC officials' promise, and hold them to it.
NBC's deal to buy the 68.5 million subscriber Bravo network for $1.25 billion puts the channel in the hands of a media giant that has been very savvy and aggressive in expanding carriage for its cable networks. A few years ago, NBC leveraged retransmission consent and the Olympic Games to extract a special surcharge from distributors, and to secure long-term deals and higher prices for CNBC and MSNBC.
NBC said its No. 1 priority is to increase Bravo's distribution to north of 80 million subscribers. Bravo's monthly license fee is currently in the 11-cent to 16-cent range, according to sources.
After announcing the Bravo deal, NBC officials — including NBC Cable president David Zaslav and NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker — stuck to the party line: While there will be some repurposing, Bravo will remain an arts-and-entertainment-oriented channel, with improvements.
"We don't see Bravo as a broad entertainment service," Zaslav said. "The challenge for cable services in the future that don't have a niche, that aren't true to a brand, is going to be lot more difficult and torturous than services that have a clear identity and a brand.
Zaslav said he saw "room for all kinds of creativity, original programming, rerun programming. That's something that Jeff Zucker and the NBC programming crew are really going to focus on and figure out how to enhance what Bravo is today."
Signs of a struggle
NBC inherits a network, home of Inside the Actor's Studio, that has struggled to increase primetime household ratings, despite an infusion of new original shows and high-profile acquisitions. Bravo averaged a 0.3 rating during the month of October, flat from the same period last year, according to Nielsen Media Research data.
Under NBC, Bravo will get a boost not only in terms of programming, but from cross-promotion on the Peacock Network, according to Jeff Gaspin, executive vice president of alternative series, long-form and program strategy for NBC and head of the Bravo transition team on the creative side.
"Bravo will benefit tremendously from NBC's promotional platform," said Gaspin, who did due diligence on Bravo for the Peacock Network. "A few spots on NBC for Bravo is practically half their marketing budget. … Bravo certainly will remain a high-end, upscale entertainment network. That's one of the reasons its so attractive to us. We share the same advertisers."
Despite NBC's protests to the contrary, some operators were wary NBC would ultimately fill Bravo with repurposed fare, in the way that The Walt Disney Co. has programmed a raft of ABC primetime series onto ABC Family, which it acquired last year.
There's also concern that NBC will drastically change Bravo's format, the way Viacom Inc. turned country-music service The Nashville Network into a general-entertainment channel, TNN: The National Network.
"Unfortunately, it seems like we've been here before with Family Channel and TNN," said Frank Hughes, senior vice president of programming for the National Cable Television Cooperative. "So does this turn into the NBC repurpose channel? Is Bravo going to stay true to what its original mission was?"
Told of NBC's insistence those changes won't happen, Hughes said: "I want to archive this issue of Multichannel
with those quotes and keep that in a file here, and we'll see in three years. I've heard this before.
"Excuse me for being skeptical, but this is what we've seen in the past in other situations like this. I'm from Missouri, you'll have to show me."
At least one cable operator saw NBC's purchase of Bravo as a plus.
"Bravo is a service that has sort of languished over the years," said Jerry McKenna, Cable One Inc.'s vice president of strategic marketing. "NBC's impact could be very positive. Bravo does have good demographics. As long as they focus on that high-end demographic, NBC ownership can help Bravo's prime ratings."
Gaspin has a winning track record in cable, as the former head of programming at VH1. He said he's not sure how involved he'll be in programming Bravo, but it seems fairly clear he'll have a role.
Fate of Bravo people
As for Bravo's staff, sources close to the situation said more than half of the channel's 200 employees will move with the network to NBC, while most other workers will remain with Rainbow.
Bravo Networks president Kathleen Dore will take the reins at Independent Film Channel and IFC Entertainment, said sources. Bravo executive vice president and general manager Ed Carroll will take over IFC's day-to-day duties, while and Bravo and Mag Rack executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Gregg Hill will assume the same position at IFC.
IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring will remain in his position and report to Dore.
Frances Berwick, Bravo's senior vice president of programming, reportedly will go with NBC and Bravo.
Gaspin said Bravo could be a testing ground for NBC shows, as well as a place to share programming.
"For series that we want to get to more viewers, or try out in other time slots, we can try them out on Bravo," Gaspin said. "And I've developed some shows that are quite alternative. I'm not quite sure they're going to work on the [NBC] network. Then I think to myself, for Bravo, they could really be interesting."
Gaspin had success launching original movies on VH1, and said he would like to do the same on Bravo. And in terms of economics, fare from the in-house NBC Studios could work for Bravo if it's also aired on NBC.
"You can certainly come up with a Monk
scenario, where something's broadcast first on Bravo and then on NBC, perhaps more for a summer play than an in-season play," Gaspin said, referring to the hit drama that runs on USA Network and ABC. "But I would agree that having the studio produce just for Bravo is probably economically not feasible."
One possibility is for a racier "cable version" of an NBC midseason crime show, Kingpin, to run on Bravo while the tamer edition runs on NBC.
While officials have said it's too early to speculate, industry observers believe that Bravo, with its upscale viewership, could be an outlet for marquee sports programming, particularly the Olympics.
The network, with rights to Winter and Summer Olympics through 2008, has been running ancillary Olympics product on MSNBC and CNBC.
"The Olympics are couple of years away, so any plans are a long way from being finalized," an NBC Sports spokeswoman said.
An NBC network spokeswoman outlined some other ways NBC could spawn original content for Bravo.
"We can use NBC News footage to create new Bravo documentaries, and we want to participate with Bravo on major events and awards shows, like the Golden Globes," the NBC spokeswoman said. "Maybe they would do the pre-show and NBC carry the awards. We're thinking of new and innovative ways to benefit from this, not repurposing."
Jack Myers, publisher of the Jack Myers Report, said NBC has to keep insisting it won't change Bravo's format or do a lot of repurposing, because affiliation deals with distributors could be reopened in the event of major changes in programming.
NBC had another repurposing outlet: Pax TV, which was to be its "second national distribution outlet." Some NBC shows, such as The Weakest Link ,
did also air on Pax TV, of which NBC owns 32 percent.
But the NBC-Pax TV relationship has soured since NBC bought Telemundo, putting Spanish-language media on its front burner.
"NBC tried this [having a second outlet] before, and it was a disaster because the management of the two companies couldn't integrate," Myers said. "It was a totally different culture and vision."
With its purchase of Bravo, NBC will have ownership in two services that produce arts and entertainment programming, as the broadcaster owns a stake in A&E Network.
A&E has moved away from that format without much ratings success, while Bravo has delved into the arts even more, often offering much quirkier programming.
But Bravo's recent original additions to primetime, such as Second City Presents, haven't helped jump-start its anemic ratings.
Even sophomore reality series The It Factor
has yet to become a ratings factor, averaging a 0.2 rating.
Bravo hasn't had much better luck with its off-network acquisitions.
— a drama created for Turner Network Television, but never aired on that service — and the recently added The Larry Sanders Show
have failed to draw significant audiences.
averaged a disappointing 0.3 rating this past summer. Sanders, an off-pay TV acquisition that had been a hit for Home Box Office, is only averaging a 0.2 rating.
Still to come is The West Wing, which premieres next year on the network. Bravo paid an estimated $1.2 million per episode for the once-hot NBC series, which has begun to show some audience erosion this season.
NBC wants to swiftly expand Bravo's distribution, Zaslav said.
At first glance, it appears NBC used up its retransmission-consent card when it did deals for the Olympics and CNBC that don't expire until 2008. But Zaslav said there could be opportunities to package Bravo with other new NBC services, whether it's Telemundo or networks the Peacock is thinking of launching, like a high-definition TV channel or additional Hispanic services.
"We'll be talking [to operators] about Bravo separately, or in the context of providing other product that's valuable to distributors," Zaslav said. "Putting Bravo together with our other services in a package would be the most valuable way to do it."
Such talk troubles Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association, which represents small, independent cable operators across the country.
"It's another in the long line of examples where the big get bigger, and there's never a point where they say we've reached as much as we need to acquire," Polka said. "I think Bravo's an excellent channel, with a heritage of arts and entertainment. It's been a cut above typical run-of-the-mill commercial television. This deal may ultimately begin to water it down, just as it did ABC Family."
Steve Donohue contributed to this story.