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National Broadcasting Company


"Every Day is Full of Color . More Colorful."

Type :  


The National Broadcasting Company is an American commercial broadcasting television network and former radio network headquartered in the GE Building in New York City's Rockefeller Center with additional major offices near Los Angeles and in Chicago. NBC is sometimes referred to as the "Peacock Network," due to its stylized peacock logo, created originally for color broadcasts.

Formed in 1926 by the Radio Corporation of America , NBC was the first major broadcast network in the United States. In 1986, control of NBC passed to General Electric , with GE's $6.4 billion purchase of RCA. GE had previously owned RCA and NBC until 1930, when it had been forced to sell the company as a result of antitrust charges.

After the 1986 acquisition, the chief executive of NBC was Bob Wright, until he retired, giving his job to Jeff Zucker. The network is currently part of the media company NBCUniversal, a joint venture of Comcast and General Electric. As a result of the merger, Zucker left NBC and was replaced by Comcast executive Steve Burke.

NBC has 10 owned-and-operated stations and nearly 200 affiliates in the United States and its territories.


Earliest stations: WEAF & WJZ
During a period of early broadcast business consolidation, the radio-making Radio Corporation of America had acquired New York radio station WEAF from American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T). An RCA shareholder, Westinghouse, had a competing facility in Newark, New Jersey pioneer station WJZ , which also served as the flagship for a loosely structured network. This station was transferred from Westinghouse to RCA in 1923, and moved to New York.

WEAF acted as a laboratory for AT&T's manufacturing and supply outlet Western Electric, whose products included transmitters and antennas. The Bell System, AT&T's telephone utility, was developing technologies to transmit voice- and music-grade audio over short and long distances, using both wireless and wired methods. The 1922 creation of WEAF offered a research-and-development center for those activities. WEAF had a regular schedule of radio programs, including some of the first commercially sponsored programs, and was an immediate success. In an early example of chain or networking broadcasting, the station linked with the Outlet Company's WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island; and with AT&T's station in Washington, D.C., WCAP.

New parent RCA saw an advantage in sharing programming, and after getting a license for station WRC in Washington, D.C., in 1923, attempted to transmit audio between cities via low-quality telegraph lines. AT&T refused outside companies access to its high-quality phone lines. The early effort fared poorly, since the uninsulated telegraph lines were susceptible to atmospheric and other electrical interference.

In 1925, AT&T decided WEAF and its embryonic network were incompatible with AT&T's primary goal of providing a telephone service. AT&T offered to sell the station to RCA in a deal that included the right to lease AT&T's phone lines for network transmission.

Red & Blue Networks
RCA spent $1 million to buy WEAF and Washington sister station WCAP, shut down the latter station and merged its facilities with surviving station WRC, and announced in late 1926 the creation of a new division known as The National Broadcasting Company. The new division was divided in ownership among RCA , General Electric , and Westinghouse . NBC launched officially on November 15, 1926.

WEAF and WJZ, the flagships of the two earlier networks, operated side-by-side for about a year as part of the new NBC. On January 1, 1927 NBC formally divided their respective marketing strategies: the Red Network offered commercially sponsored entertainment and music programming; the Blue Network mostly carried sustaining or non-sponsored broadcasts, especially news and cultural programs. Various histories of NBC suggest the color designations for the two networks came from the color of the push pins NBC engineers used to designate affiliates of WEAF and WJZ , or from the use of double-ended red and blue colored pencils. A similar two-part/two-color strategy appeared in the recording industry, dividing the market between classical and popular offerings.

On April 5, 1927, NBC reached the West Coast with the launch of the NBC Orange Network, also known as The Pacific Coast Network. This was followed by the debut on October 18, 1931, of the NBC Gold Network, also known as The Pacific Gold Network. The Orange Network carried Red Network programming and the Gold Network carried programming from the Blue Network. Initially the Orange Network recreated Eastern Red Network programming for West Coast stations at KPO in San Francisco. In 1936 the Orange Network name was dropped and network affiliate stations became part of the Red Network. At the same time the Gold Network became part of the Blue Network. NBC also developed a network for shortwave radio stations in the 1930s called the NBC White Network.

Prior to occupying its location at Rockefeller Center, NBC had occupied upper floors of a building at 711 Fifth Avenue developed by Floyd Brown, himself an architect. Home of NBC from its construction in 1927, the broadcast company occupied floor designed by Raymond Hood – who designed the tenants multiple studios as "a Gothic church, the Roman forum, a Louis XIV room and, in a space devoted to jazz, something “wildly futuristic, with plenty of color in bizarre designs.” NBC outgrew 711 Fifth Avenue in 1933.

In 1930, General Electric was compelled by antitrust charges to divest itself of RCA, which it had founded. RCA moved its corporate headquarters into the new Rockefeller Center in 1933, signing the leases in 1931. RCA was the lead tenant at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the RCA Building . The building housed NBC studios, as well as theaters for RCA-owned RKO Pictures. Rockefeller Center's founder and financier John D. Rockefeller, Jr., arranged the deal with the chairman of GE, Owen D. Young, and the president of RCA, David Sarnoff.

The chimes

The famous three-note NBC chimes came about after several years of development. The three note sequence G-E'-C' were heard first over Atlanta's WSB. The chimes outline what is known to musicians as a second inversion C Major triad. Someone at NBC in New York heard the WSB version of the notes during the networked broadcast of a Georgia Tech football game and asked permission to use it on the national network. NBC started to use the three notes in 1931, and it was the first audio trademark to be accepted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A variant sequence was also used that went G-E'-C'-G, known as "the fourth chime" and used during wartime , on D-Day, and disasters. The NBC chimes were mechanized in 1932 by Richard H. Ranger of the Rangertone company; their purpose was to send a low level signal of constant amplitude that would be heard by the various switching stations manned by NBC and AT&T engineers, and thus used as a system cue for switching different stations between the Red and Blue network feeds. Contrary to popular legend, the three musical notes, G-E'-C', did not originally stand for NBC's previous parent corporation, the General Electric Company; although GE's radio station in Schenectady, New York, WGY, was an early NBC affiliate, and GE was an early shareholder in NBC's founding parent RCA. General Electric did not own NBC outright until 1986. G-E'-C' was incorporated into John Williams' theme music for the NBC Nightly News, and is still used on NBC-TV. A variant with two preceding notes is used on the MSNBC cable television network. NBC's radio branch no longer exists.

New beginnings: The Blue Network becomes ABC
The Federal Communications Commission had, since its creation in 1934, investigated the monopolistic effects of network broadcasting. The FCC found that NBC's two networks and its owned-and-operated stations dominated audiences, affiliates and advertising in American radio. In 1939 the FCC ordered RCA to divest itself of one of the two networks. RCA fought the divestiture order, but in 1940 divided NBC into two companies in case an appeal was lost. The Blue Network became NBC Blue Network, Inc. and NBC Red became NBC Red Network, Inc. Both networks formally divorced operations on January 8, 1942, and the Blue Network was referred to on the air as either Blue or Blue Network, with official corporate name Blue Network Company, Inc. NBC Red, on the air, became known simply as NBC.

After losing its final appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court in May 1943, RCA sold Blue Network Company, Inc., for $8 million to Life Savers magnate Edward J. Noble, completing the sale on October 12, 1943. Noble got the network name, leases on land-lines and the New York studios; two-and-a half stations ; and about 60 affiliates. Noble wanted a better name for the network and in 1944 acquired the rights to the name American Broadcasting Company from George Storer. The Blue Network became ABC officially on June 15, 1945, after the sale was completed.

Defining radio’s golden age

In the golden days of network broadcasting, 1930 to 1950, NBC was at the pinnacle of American radio. NBC broadcast radio's earliest mass hit, Amos 'n' Andy, beginning in 1926–27 in its original fifteen-minute serial format. The show set a standard for nearly all serialized programming in the original radio era, both comedies and soap operas. The appeal of the two struggling title characters landed a broad audience, especially during the Great Depression.

NBC became home to many of the most popular performers and programs on the air. Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, Bob Hope, Fred Allen, and Burns and Allen called NBC home, as did Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra, which the network helped him create. Other programs were Vic and Sade, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve (arguably broadcasting's first spin-off program, from Fibber McGee), One Man's Family, Ma Perkins, and Death Valley Days. NBC stations were often the most powerful, and some occupied unique clear-channel national frequencies, reaching many hundreds or thousands of miles at night.

In the late 1940s, rival Columbia Broadcasting System gained ground by allowing radio stars to use their own production companies, which was profitable for them. In early radio years, stars and programs commonly hopped between networks when their short-term contracts expired. In 1948–49, beginning with the nation's top radio star, Jack Benny, many NBC performers jumped to CBS.

In addition, NBC stars began moving toward television, including comedian Milton Berle, whose Texaco Star Theater on NBC became television's first major hit. Conductor Arturo Toscanini conducted ten television concerts on NBC between 1948 and 1952. The concerts were simulcast on both TV and radio, perhaps the first such instance in which this was done. Two of them were historic firsts – the first complete telecast of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, and the first complete telecast of Verdi's Aida, performed in concert rather than with scenery and costumes. The Aida telecast starred Herva Nelli and Richard Tucker.

Aiming to keep classic radio alive as television matured, and to challenge CBS's Sunday night radio lineup, much of which had jumped from NBC with Jack Benny, NBC launched The Big Show in November 1950. This 90-minute variety show updated radio's earliest musical variety style with sophisticated comedy and dramatic presentations. Featuring stage legend Tallulah Bankhead as hostess, it lured prestigious entertainers, including Fred Allen, Groucho Marx, Lauritz Melchior, Ethel Barrymore, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Merman, Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Ella Fitzgerald. But The Big Show's initial success did not last despite critical praise, as most of its potential listeners were increasingly becoming television viewers. The show endured two years, with NBC losing perhaps a million dollars on the project (they were only able to sell advertising time during the middle half-hour every week).

NBC's last major radio programming push, beginning June 12, 1955, was Monitor, a creation of NBC President Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, who also created the innovative NBC television programs Today Show, Tonight Show, and Home. Monitor was a continuous all-weekend mixture of music, news, interviews and features, with a variety of hosts including well-known television personalities Dave Garroway, Hugh Downs, Ed McMahon, Joe Garagiola and Gene Rayburn. The potpourri show tried to keep vintage radio alive by featuring segments from Jim and Marian Jordan ; Peg Lynch's dialog comedy Ethel and Albert ; and iconoclastic satirist Henry Morgan. Monitor was a success for a number of years, but after the mid-1960s, local stations, especially in larger markets, were reluctant to break from their established formats to run non-conforming network programming. One exception was Toscanini: The Man Behind the Legend, a weekly series commemorating the great conductor's NBC broadcasts and recordings which began in 1963 and ran for several years. After Monitor went off the air January 26, 1975, little remained of NBC network radio beyond hourly newscasts and news features, and The Eternal Light on Sunday mornings.

The last years of NBC Radio
Beginning on June 18, 1975, NBC launched the NBC News and Information Service , which provided up to 55 minutes of news per hour around the clock to local stations that wanted to adopt an all-news format. NBC aired the service on WRC in Washington and on its owned-and-operated FM stations in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. NIS attracted several dozen subscribing stations, but by the fall of 1976 NBC determined that it could not project that the service would ever become profitable and gave the subscribers six months' notice that it would be discontinued. NIS operations ended on May 29, 1977. In 1979, NBC started The Source, a modestly successful secondary network providing news and short features to FM rock stations.

The NBC Radio Network also pioneered personal advice call-in national talk radio with a satellite-distributed talk show in the evening entitled TalkNet, featuring Bruce Williams , Bernard Meltzer and Sally Jesse Raphael . While never much of a ratings success, TalkNet nonetheless helped further the national talk radio format. For affiliates, many of them struggling AM stations, TalkNet helped fill the evenings with free programming, allowing the stations to sell local advertising in a dynamic format without the cost associated with producing local programming. Some in the industry feared this trend would lead to ever-more control of radio content by networks and syndicators.

GE acquired RCA in 1986, and with it NBC, signaling the beginning of the end of NBC Radio. There were three factors that led to its demise. First, GE decided that radio did not fit its strategy. Second, the radio division had not been profitable for many years. Finally, FCC rules at the time prevented a new owner from owning both a radio and TV division. In the summer of 1987, GE sold NBC Radio's network operations to Westwood One, and sold off the NBC-owned stations to different buyers. By 1990, the NBC Radio Network as an independent programming service was pretty much gone, becoming a brand name for content produced by Westwood One, and ultimately by, ironically, CBS Radio. The Mutual Broadcasting System, which Westwood One had acquired two years earlier, met the same fate, and essentially merged with NBC Radio.

It should be noted that GE's divestiture of NBC's entire radio division was the first cannon shot of what would play out in the national broadcast media, as each of the Big 3 broadcast networks were soon acquired by other corporate entities. The NBC case was particularly noteworthy in that it was the first to be bought—and was bought by a corporate behemoth outside the broadcast industry as GE is a manufacturer. Prior to the acquisition by GE, NBC operated its radio division partly out of tradition, and partly to meet its then-FCC-mandated requirement to distribute programming for the public good. Syndicators such as Westwood One were not subject to such rules as they owned no stations. Thus did GE's divestiture of NBC Radio – "America's First Network" – in many ways mark the "beginning of the end" of the old broadcasting era and the ushering in of the new, largely unregulated industry that we see today.

By the late 1990s, Westwood One was producing NBC Radio-branded newscasts, on weekday mornings only. In 1999, these were discontinued, and the few remaining NBC Radio Network affiliates began to receive CNN Radio-branded newscasts around the clock. But in 2003, Westwood One began distributing a new service called NBC News Radio, consisting of one-minute news updates read by television anchors and reporters from NBC News and MSNBC. The content, however, is written by employees of Westwood One – not NBC News.


For many years NBC was closely identified with David Sarnoff, who used it as a vehicle to sell consumer electronics. It was Sarnoff who ruthlessly stole innovative ideas from competitors, using RCA's muscle to prevail in the courts. RCA and Sarnoff had dictated the broadcasting standards put in place by the FCC in 1938, and captured the spotlight by introducing all-electronic television to the public at the 1939–40 New York World's Fair, simultaneously initiating a regular schedule of programs on the NBC-RCA television station in New York City. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared at the fair, before the NBC cameras, becoming the first U.S. president to appear on television on April 30, 1939. The David Sarnoff Library has available an actual, off-the-monitor photograph of the FDR telecast. The broadcast was transmitted by NBC's New York television station W2XBS Channel 1 (now WNBC-TV channel 4) and was seen by about one thousand viewers within the station's roughly coverage area from their Empire State Building transmitter location.

The next day, May 1, four models of RCA television sets went on sale to the general public in various New York City department stores, promoted in a series of splashy newspaper ads. It is to be noted that DuMont actually offered the first home sets in 1938 in anticipation of NBC's announced April 1939 start-up. Later in 1939, NBC took its cameras to professional football and baseball games in the New York City area, establishing many "firsts" in the history of television.

Actual NBC "network" broadcasts began about this time with occasional special events – such as the British King and Queen's visit to the New York World's Fair – being seen in Philadelphia and in Schenectady , two pioneer stations in their own right. The most ambitious NBC television "network" program of this pre-war era was the telecasting of the Republican National Convention in 1940 from Philadelphia, which was fed live to New York and Schenectady. However, despite major promotion by RCA, television set sales in New York in the 1939–1940 period were disappointing, primarily due to the high cost of the sets, and the lack of compelling regular programming. Most sets were sold to bars, hotels and other public places, where the general public viewed special sporting and news events.

Television's experimental period ended, and the FCC allowed full commercial telecasting to begin on July 1, 1941. NBC's New York station W2XBS received the first commercial license, adopting the call letters WNBT (it is now WNBC-TV). The first official, paid television commercial on that day broadcast by any station in the United States was for Bulova Watches, seen just before the start of a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball telecast on NBC's WNBT, New York. A test pattern, featuring the newly assigned WNBT call letters, was modified to look like a clock, complete with functioning hands. The Bulova logo, with the phrase "Bulova Watch Time", was shown in the lower right-hand quadrant of the test pattern. A photograph of the NBC camera telecasting the test pattern-advertisement for that first official TV commercial can be seen at this page. Among programming on the opening weekend of WNBT's programming was amateur boxing at Jamaica Arena, the Eastern Clay Courts tennis championships, programming from the USO, a spelling bee-type game show called "Words on the Wing," a few feature films, and the television debut of the game show Truth or Consequences.

Limited programming continued until the U.S. entered World War II. Telecasts were curtailed in the early years of the war, then expanded as NBC began to prepare for full service upon the war's end. On V-E Day, May 8, 1945, WNBT broadcast hours of news coverage, and remotes from around New York City. This event was pre-promoted by NBC with a direct-mail card sent to television set owners in the New York area. At one point, a WNBT camera placed atop the marquee of the Hotel Astor panned the crowd below celebrating the end of the war in Europe. The vivid coverage was a prelude to television's rapid growth after the war ended.

The NBC television network grew from its initial post-war lineup of four stations. The 1947 World Series featured two New York teams , and local TV sales boomed, since the games were telecast in New York. More stations along the East Coast and in the Midwest were connected by coaxial cable through the late 1940s, and in September 1951 the first transcontinental telecasts took place.

The early 1950s brought success for NBC in the new medium. Television's first big star, Milton Berle, drew large audiences to NBC with his antics on Texaco Star Theater. Under its innovative president, Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the network launched Today and The Tonight Show, which would bookend the broadcast day for over fifty years, and which still lead their competitors. Weaver, who also launched the genre of periodic 90-minute network "spectaculars," network-produced motion pictures, and the live 90-minute Sunday afternoon series Wide Wide World, left the network in 1955 in a dispute with its chairman David Sarnoff, who subsequently named his son Robert Sarnoff as president.

In 1951, NBC commissioned Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti to compose the first opera ever written for television; Menotti came up with Amahl and the Night Visitors, a forty-five minute work for which he wrote both music and libretto, about a disabled shepherd boy who meets the Three Wise Men and is miraculously cured when he offers his crutch to the newborn Christ Child. It was such a stunning success that it was repeated every year on NBC from 1951 to 1966, when a quarrel between Menotti and NBC ended the broadcasts. However, by 1978, Menotti and NBC had patched things up, and an all-new production of the work, filmed partly on location in the Middle East, was telecast that year.

Color television

While rivals CBS and DuMont also offered color broadcasting plans, RCA convinced a waffling FCC to approve its color system in December 1953. NBC was ready with color programming within days of the FCC's decision. NBC began with some shows in 1954, and that summer broadcast its first program to air all episodes in color, The Marriage.

  • In 1955, on the television anthology Producers' Showcase, NBC broadcast a live production in color of Peter Pan, a new Broadway musical adaptation of J. M. Barrie's beloved play, with the musical's entire original cast, the first such telecast of its kind. Mary Martin starred as Peter and Cyril Ritchard played the dual role of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. The broadcast drew the highest ratings for a television program up to then. It was so successful that NBC restaged it live a mere ten months later, and in 1960, long after Producers' Showcase had ended its run, Peter Pan, with most of the 1955 cast, was restaged again, this time as a TV special on its own, and videotaped so that it would no longer have to be done live on television.
  • In 1956 during a National Association meeting in Chicago, NBC announced that its Chicago TV station WNBQ (now WMAQ-TV) was the first color TV station in the nation .
  • The television edition of the radio program The Bell Telephone Hour premiered in color on NBC in 1959, where it continued for nine more years.
  • In September 1961, the Walt Disney anthology television series moved from ABC to NBC, where the show continued its very long run, this time in color. As many of the Disney programs shown in black-and-white on ABC had actually been filmed in color, they could easily be repeated on the NBC edition of the program.
  • The 1962 Rose Bowl was the first color television broadcast of a college football game.

By 1963, much of NBC's prime time schedule was in color, although some popular programs like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which premiered in late 1964, had their entire first season in black-and-white. In the fall of 1965, NBC achieved 95% color programming in prime time , and began billing itself as "The Full Color Network". Without television sets to sell, rival networks followed more slowly, finally committing to 100% prime-time color programming in the 1966–67 season. Days of our Lives was the first soap opera to premiere in color.

In 1967, NBC acquired MGM's classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz after CBS, which had televised the film beginning in 1956, refused to meet MGM's increased price for more television showings. Oz had been, up to then, one of the few programs that CBS had telecast in color, but by 1967, color was the norm on TV, and the film became another in the list of color specials telecast by NBC. The network showed the film annually for eight years, beginning in 1968, after which CBS, realizing that they may have committed a colossal blunder by letting this then-huge ratings success go to another network, now agreed to pay MGM more money so that the rights to show the film could revert to them.

Two distinctive features of the film's showings on NBC were:

  1. the film was shown for the first time without a host to introduce it as had always been previously done,
  2. the film was slightly cut to make room for more commercials. Despite the cuts, however, it continued to score excellent television ratings in those pre-VCR days, as audiences were generally unable to see the film any other way at that time.

1970s doldrums
The 1970s started strongly for the network thanks to hits like Adam-12, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, Emergency!, The Dean Martin Show, and The Flip Wilson Show, but this did not last. In spite of the success of such new shows as the NBC Mystery Movie, Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man, Little House on the Prairie, The Rockford Files, Police Woman and Quincy, M.E., as well as continued success from veterans like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Wonderful World of Disney, the network entered a slump in the middle of the decade. Disney, in particular, saw its ratings nosedive once CBS put 60 Minutes up against it in the 1975–1976 season. In 1974 under new president Herb Schlosser, the network tried to go after younger viewers with a series of costly movies, miniseries and specials. This failed to attract the desirable 18–34 demographic, and alienated older viewers. None of the new prime-time shows NBC introduced in the fall of 1975 earned a second season, all failing in the face of established competition. The network's lone breakout success that season was the groundbreaking late-night comedy/variety show, NBC's Saturday Night – which would soon become Saturday Night Live, in a time slot previously held by reruns of The Tonight Show.

In 1978, Schlosser was promoted to executive vice presidency at RCA, and a desperate NBC lured Fred Silverman away from number-one ABC to turn the network's fortunes around. With the notable exceptions of Diff'rent Strokes, Real People, The Facts of Life, and the mini-series Shogun, he could not find a hit. Failures accumulated rapidly under his watch . Ironically many of them were beaten in the ratings by shows Silverman had greenlighted at CBS and ABC.

Also during this time, NBC suffered the defections of several longtime affiliates in markets such as: Atlanta (WSB-TV), Baltimore (WBAL-TV), Baton Rouge (WBRZ-TV), Charlotte (WSOC-TV), Dayton , Indianapolis , Jacksonville , Minneapolis-St. Paul (KSTP-TV), San Diego and Schenectady . Most were wooed away by ABC, which was the number-one network during the late 1970s and early 1980s, while WBAL-TV and WRGB-TV went to CBS. In the case of WSB-TV and WSOC-TV, both were under common ownership with Cox Communications, with its other NBC affiliate at the time, WIIC-TV in Pittsburgh , only remaining with the network because WIIC-TV itself was in a distant third to then-CBS affiliate and Group W powerhouse KDKA-TV & pre-existing ABC affiliate WTAE-TV. (KDKA-TV, which is now owned by CBS, infamously passed up affiliating with NBC after Westinghouse Electric bought the station from DuMont in 1954, leading to an acrimonious relationship between NBC and Westinghouse for years afterward.) In markets such as San Diego, Charlotte, and Jacksonville, NBC was forced to replace the lost stations with new affiliates broadcasting on the UHF band, with the San Diego station eventually becoming an NBC O&O. Other smaller television markets like Yuma, Arizona waited many years to get another local NBC affiliate . The stations in Baltimore, Dayton and Jacksonville, however, have since rejoined the network.

When U.S. President Jimmy Carter pulled the American team out of the 1980 Summer Olympics, NBC canceled a planned 150 hours of coverage (which had cost $87 million), and the network's future was in doubt. It had been counting on $170 million in advertising revenues and on the broadcasts to help promote fall shows.

The press was merciless towards Silverman, but the two most savage attacks on his leadership came from within. The company that composed NBC's on-air Proud as a Peacock promo music created a spoof of the ad campaign called "Loud as a Peacock." Radio host Don Imus at WNBC in New York played the parody on-air. This angered Silverman and he ordered all remaining copies of the parody destroyed, though some copies remain. On Saturday Night Live, series writer and occasional performer Al Franken satirized Silverman in an SNL sketch titled "Limo for a Lame-O." As a result, Silverman admitted he "never liked Al Franken to begin with", and the sketch ruined Franken's chance of succeeding Lorne Michaels as executive producer of SNL.

Tartikoff's turnaround
In the summer of 1981, Fred Silverman resigned. Grant Tinker became president of the network and Brandon Tartikoff became chief of programming. Tartikoff inherited a schedule full of aging dramas and very few sitcoms, but showed patience with promising programs. One such show was the critically acclaimed Hill Street Blues, which rated poorly in its first season. Instead of canceling it, he moved the Emmy Award-winning police drama to Thursday night where its ratings improved dramatically. He used the same tactics with St. Elsewhere and Cheers. Shows like these were able to get the same ad revenue as their higher-rated, mass-audience competition because of their desirable demographics, upscale, 18–34 year-old viewers. While the network claimed moderate successes with Gimme a Break!, Silver Spoons, Knight Rider and Remington Steele, its biggest hit in this period was The A-Team, which, at tenth place, was the network's only top-20 rated show of the 1982–1983 season, and it reached third place the next year. These shows helped NBC through the disastrous 1983–84 season, in which none of its new fall shows gained a second year.

In 1982, NBC canceled Tom Snyder's The Tomorrow Show and gave the time slot to 34-year-old comedian David Letterman. Though Letterman had an unsuccessful daytime series in 1980, Late Night with David Letterman proved much more successful.

In 1984, the huge success of The Cosby Show led to a renewed interest in sitcoms, while Family Ties and Cheers, both of which premiered in 1982 to mediocre ratings, saw their viewership increase from having Cosby as a lead-in. The network moved from third place to second place that season. It reached first place in the Nielsen rankings in the 1985–86 season, with hits The Golden Girls, Jem, Miami Vice, 227, Night Court, Highway to Heaven, and Hunter. The network's upswing continued through the decade with ALF, Amen, Matlock, L.A. Law, The Hogan Family, A Different World, Empty Nest, and In the Heat of the Night. In 1986, Bob Wright became chairman of NBC. In the 1988–1989 season, NBC, which was home to an astonishing 18 of the 30 highest-rated programs, won every week in the ratings for more than 12 months, an achievement that has not been duplicated before or since.

NBC aired the first of seven consecutive Summer Olympic Games broadcasts when it covered the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. In 2002, the network would add the Winter Olympics, giving NBC the rights to every Olympics through the 2012 London Games.

"Must See TV"

In 1991, Tartikoff left NBC to take a position at Paramount Pictures. In one decade he had taken control of a network with no shows in the Nielsen Top 10 and left it with five. Warren Littlefield took his place as president of NBC Entertainment. His start was shaky due to the end of most of the Tartikoff-era hits. Some blamed him for losing David Letterman to CBS after giving The Tonight Show to Jay Leno, following Johnny Carson's 1992 retirement. Things turned around with hit series Friends, Mad About You, Frasier, ER, and Will & Grace. One of Tartikoff's late acquisitions, Seinfeld, initially struggled, but became one of NBC's top-rated shows after it was moved into the timeslot following Cheers. The Must See TV tag line was applied to Thursday night's strong lineup. After popular show Seinfeld ended its run in 1998, Friends became the most popular sitcom on NBC. It dominated the ratings, never leaving the top 5 watched shows of the year in its second through tenth season and landing on the number 1 spot in season eight (2001–2002 season). Frasier was also popular and, despite not being as highly rated as Friends, still usually landed in the top 20 and won numerous Emmy Awards.

By the mid-1990s, NBC's sports division, headed by Dick Ebersol, had rights to three of the four major professional sports organizations , the Olympics, and the national powerhouse Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. The NBA on NBC enjoyed great success in the 90s due in large part to the Chicago Bulls' run of six championships with superstar Michael Jordan. NBC Sports would suffer a major blow in 1998, however, when it lost the NFL to CBS, which itself had lost rights to FOX four years earlier.

In 1998, Littlefield left NBC. Scott Sassa replaced him as president of NBC Entertainment. Sassa oversaw the development of such shows as The West Wing, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Fear Factor. Sassa then named Garth Ancier as his replacement in 1999. Ancier was responsible for putting The West Wing on the air. Jeff Zucker replaced Ancier as president of NBC Entertainment in 2000.

NBC's Must See TV declined after Friends and Frasier ended their runs in 2004. Friends spin-off Joey started to fail during its second season.

New century, new problems
At the start of the 2000s, NBC's fortunes took a rapid turn for the worse. In 2001, CBS chose its hit reality series Survivor to anchor its Thursday night line-up. Its success was taken as a suggestion that NBC's nearly two decades of Thursday night dominance could be broken. With the loss of Friends and Frasier in 2004, NBC was left with several moderately rated shows and few true hits. By then, its major sports offerings had been reduced to the Olympics, PGA Tour golf and a floundering Notre Dame football program. NBC's ratings fell to fourth place. CBS led for most of the decade, followed by a resurgent ABC, and Fox (which would eventually become the most watched network for the 2007–08 season). During this time, all of the networks faced shrinking audiences due to increased competition from cable, home video, videogames and the internet, with NBC being the hardest hit.

With the beginning of the 2004–2005 season, NBC became the first major network to produce its programming in widescreen, hoping to attract new viewers; however, the network saw only a slight boost.

In 2004, Zucker was promoted to the newly created position of president of NBC Universal Television Group. Kevin Riley became the new president of NBC Entertainment.

In December 2005, NBC began its first week-long primetime game show event, Deal or No Deal, garnering high ratings, and returning multi-weekly in March 2006. On sustained success, Deal or No Deal returned in the fall of 2006. Otherwise, the 2005–06 season was one of the worst for NBC in three decades, with only one fall series, the sitcom My Name Is Earl, surviving for a second season. The 2006–07 season was a mixed bag, with Heroes becoming a surprise hit on Monday nights, while the highly touted Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, from the creator of NBC's hit drama The West Wing, lost a third of its premiere-night viewers by week six and was eventually canceled. Sunday Night NFL football returned to NBC after eight years, Deal or No Deal stayed strong, and its comedies The Office and 30 Rock won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series for four consecutive years. However, NBC has remained in a very distant fourth place, barely ahead of The CW.

However, NBC did gain success in its summer schedule, despite its falling ratings within the regular broadcast season. America's Got Talent, a reality talent show hosted by Regis Philbin, with its world premiere in 2006, gained a 4.6 rating in the 18-49 demographic, which was higher than the original premiere of FOX's American Idol in 2002. The show would continue to garner unusually high ratings throughout its summer run. However, NBC decided not to place it in the spring season, and instead use it as a platform to promote their upcoming fall shows. The show is now hosted by Nick Cannon, and continues to garner high ratings throughout its summer seasons.

In 2007, Ben Silverman replaced Kevin Riley as president of NBC Entertainment, while Jeff Zucker succeeded Bob Wright as CEO of NBC. No new primetime hits emerged in the 2008–2009 season (despite NBC's rare good fortune to have both the Super Bowl and the Beijing Olympic Games in which to promote their new offerings), while Heroes and Deal or No Deal both collapsed in the ratings, and both have since been cancelled. NBC Universal President/CEO Jeff Zucker had previously said that NBC no longer believed that they could be No.1 in prime time.

In March 2007, NBC announced that it would offer full-length prime-time television shows like The Office and Heroes on-demand to play on mobile phones. This was a first for the United States, as the market shifts away from traditional television.

In 2009, Jeff Gaspin replaced Ben Silverman as president of NBC Entertainment.

2010 and beyond

NBC aired the in Vancouver, generating 21% higher ratings than its previous broadcast of the 2006 games in Torino. NBC was criticized for repeatedly showing footage of the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. This led NBC News president Steve Capus to order the footage not to be shown without his permission and announcer Bob Costas to promise that the video would not be shown again during the Games. NBC Universal is on track to pull in at least $250 million less from advertisers than the $820 million paid for the US rights to air the Games. Even so, with its continuing position in fourth place , the 2009–2010 season ended with only two scripted shows – Community and Parenthood, as well as three unscripted shows – The Marriage Ref, Who Do You Think You Are?, and Minute to Win It – to be renewed for second terms, while others such as Heroes and Law & Order were canceled, the latter of which after 20 seasons, tying it with Gunsmoke for the record for longest-running scripted drama. The 2010–2011 season was more disastrous, with only two midseason replacements, Harry's Law and The Voice being renewed for a second season as of July.

When Conan O'Brien replaced Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show in 2009, the network gave Leno a new talk show, committing to air it every weeknight at 10:00 pm ET/PT , as an inexpensive comedic alternative to the procedurals and other one-hour dramas that typically air during that time slot. In doing so, NBC became the first large United States network in decades, or possibly ever, to broadcast the same show every weekday during prime time hours. Its executives called the decision "a transformational moment in the history of broadcasting" and "in effect, launching five shows." Conversely, industry executives criticized the network for abandoning a history of airing quality dramas at that hour, and that it would hurt NBC by undermining a reputation built on successful scripted shows. In January 2010, however, NBC would end up announcing that Leno's 10 pm show would be canceled, citing complaints from many affiliates, whose local newscasts significantly dropped in the ratings as a result of the change. Zucker attempted to move and shorten The Jay Leno Show to the 11:35 pm–12:05 am time slot and move the existing shows, including The Tonight Show, back 30 minutes. This, however, caused considerable backlash, as O'Brien had not been given any choice or prior notification of the move. Furthermore, his contract guaranteed him a minimum of three years as host and the majority of his staff had moved with him from New York to California less than a year before the show started. O'Brien refused to be a part of the moves if they went through, gaining tremendous public and professional support, and leading to a host and timeslot conflict, with Leno, Zucker and NBC as a whole having seen significant negative backlash against them for their involvement. Leno would end up returning as host of The Tonight Show effective March 1, 2010, while O'Brien accepted a buyout from NBC. O'Brien went on to host a new show, Conan, on cable network TBS starting in November 2010.

Despite the removal of The Jay Leno Show in prime time, the change had almost no impact on the network's ratings. The increases NBC noticed in the 2010 season compared to 2009 were almost entirely attributable to increased ratings for NBC Sunday Night Football.

Jeff Zucker announced on September 24, 2010 that he would step down as CEO of NBC Universal once Comcast's purchase of NBC was completed at the end of the year. After the purchase was complete, Steve Burke became the new CEO of NBC Universal and Robert Greenblatt replaced Jeff Gaspin as chairman of NBC Entertainment.

The network completed its full conversion to an all-HD schedule on September 20, 2011, with the premiere of the eleventh season of Last Call with Carson Daly in the format.

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