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The First Day of the Rest of the Peacock’s Life

I know NBC-Universal is a cable TV company, not a network television company anymore, however, two big events loom for the Peacock that may well decide its 21st Century Fate. The first is the much-ballyhooed curtain-opener from Burbank at 10pm EST tonight: the launch of the “Jay Leno Show.”

NBC execs are cleverly predicting only a 1.5 rating in the key demo (A18-49) which is an extremely low bar. How do they get away with setting the bar so near the ground–at a rating that would lose to several dramas that were cancelled last season? By promising the world that such a rating would drive enough revenue to more than cover the significantly lower costs required for a nightly comedy show (versus a pricey drama.) As I’ve posted before, that may work fine for GE shareholders and upper management and certainly does creatively address the network business model conundrum, but a 1.5 rating is not going to delight NBC’s affiliates who have relied heavily on revenues from late night newscasts that follow Leno beginning tonight.

(*Also–while that bar is exceptionally low, there is a nightmare scenario for NBC if Leno–who will start quite north of 1.5 due to hype and curiosity this week–dives down toward 1.0 or below in the weeks ahead. After all, it’s a long race with steep competition not just from the other Big Four nets, but also increasingly from cable–e.g. HBO, TNT, FX, A&E, not to mention NBCU’s own stable-mates USA & Bravo.)

Secondly–as if that isn’t enough to keep the 52nd floor on pins & needles–there is the less publicized Vivendi Drama. In case you don’t know, Vivendi has the right in November to sell its 20% stake in NBCU, either in the open market or to NBCU’s parent, GE. If Vivendi exercises that option–and it’s likely they might here in 2009–an awkward test of the company’s real value would be unleashed during a very uncertain time for the industry at large. This instability could trigger any number of cataclysmic events, up to and including a decision by GE to finally sell off the entire $30B asset. (Time Warner NBC Universal, anyone?)

Bottom line: looks like a bumpy ride this season for the three Jeff’s–Gaspin, Zucker and Immelt and it could turn out to be the hottest show of the season.

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. He oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company, including ShopTalk & TVSPY. If you would like to comment on Remote Control, or want to reach Erik, email remotecontrol@tvspy.

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