Creating Must See TV: NBC's Jeff Gaspin

Jeff Gaspin thought he wanted to be a doctor when he left his childhood neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., for college in the late 1970s. He later discovered that his calling wasn't to heal sick people but rather to breathe life into cable networks. At Viacom's VH1 in the mid-1990s, he greenlighted the brand-defining Behind the Music and later brought new life to NBC Universal's Bravo channel with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Now, with his promotion this week to chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, he adds the Peacock Network's prime-time lineup to his portfolio of NBC Universal's cable networks. Gaspin has another Code Blue on his hands. As his predecessor, Ben Silverman, heads off to join Web industrialist Barry Diller in a new venture, Gaspin inherits a network poised to enter its fifth straight season in last place. Gaspin talked to NEWSWEEK's Johnnie L. Roberts about his plans to give NBC an identity and launch Jay Leno in nightly prime time. Excerpts:

What are your ideas for returning prime time to its glory days?
We have big launch with Jay Leno in the fall and obviously the rest of the fall schedule, too. I'd like to see NBC brand itself and have a focus. A broadcast network doesn't have to be all things to all people. I think broadcasting can take a page out of cable's playbook. If you look at USA Network, you can be a broad-based network, yet build a brand. I think you need to have a focus and brand filter so everyone on the team understands what the goals are and what the vision is for the content. I'm very excited about it.

I understand that NBC had been quietly working to define the NBC brand. What can you tell me about it?
It's not been made public, but they've already been working on something. I need to spend time with them and see what that is. I think it's almost more importantly internally than externally. You want everyone to be on the same page and understand what NBC stands for.

What has been the problem at NBC? Is it simply the lack of hits?
There is a secular problem with the industry. Digital video recorders have been siphoning viewers. The viewers are going to cable, and you have so many more alternatives with other platforms. You have online as another medium that takes a lot of the time from traditional television viewing. And, it's like you said, we just don't have enough hits.

How does NBC Universal benefit now with all of the vast television operations under one roof reporting to you?
I think it gives us the opportunity to maximize the value of all the content and be able to really look at not just broadcast as the first window [of television shows], but how to get most value out of our content.

Is Leno your main priority? What more can you add at this point to ensure a big launch? We're just going to put all the power NBC Universal behind Jay.