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All New II!

My colleague Jason Snell leaves out a few important details about the NBC billboard that beams out its electronic messages of love and peace and Must-See happiness to the Bay Area masses. First off, the sign is owned by NBC-3, the local Peacock Network affiliate, which is not actually available in parts of San Francisco, since the station broadcasts out of San Jose. And the billboard is just part of the station's efforts to let grateful San Franciscans know that the NBC programming they've grown accustomed to finding on channel 4 for the past four decades is now airing on a crummy little UHF station that was willing to meet the parent network's usurious compensation demands.

Secondly, the billboard has gone throw multiple changes since NBC-3 made it as recognizable a part of the San Francisco landscape as the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica building. Before its present mission to spread the good news about NBC's 10 p.m. lineup ("ALL NEW ER! TONIGHT! "), the sign touted a daytime offering called Life Moments, which, according to the show's Web site features "stories of hope, stories of triumph, stories of inspiration for and about women." Presumably, any men who flip by the show by accident should change the channel immediately, lest they be captured and debriefed by the Life Moments shock troops.

(And what is a story of hope, a story of triumph, a story of inspiration for and about today's modern woman? "Moments that are important to you," the Life Moments Web site enthuses. "Like the romance of dating and weddings, the excitement of reunions and makeovers, and the miracle of birth." Stories about equal work for equal pay and Title IX presumably will have to wait for another series.)

When it was busy pimping Life Moments, the electronic portion of the billboard beamed out the following message: "NEW EPISODE TODAY AT 4 P.M." And that turned out to be a problem, since the billboard is right near the Bay Bridge, all the better to capture the hearts, minds and eyeballs of drivers stranded on I-80 during the morning commute -- or to put it another way, not the kind of folks who are anywhere near a TV set at 4 p.m. today, no matter how hopeful, triumphant, or inspiring the stories are.

So the Life Moments billboard went away, and San Franciscans are now on their own when it comes to finding out when an exciting and inspiring story about a makeover is on.

Before that, NBC-3 used the billboard to promote NBC's prime-time lineup, with artist renderings of the stars of popular Must-See TV shows. There was the cast of Friends, hugging one another in anticipation of the inevitable all-cast orgy that will close out the series this year (The artist who designed the billboard apparently couldn't decide whether to draw Chandler after his precipitous weight gain or after his sudden weight loss, so he drew both.). There was Will and Grace, also hugging, and President Sheen, not hugging anybody, but leaning forward in preparation of rattling off some homey aphorism or obscure factoid that perfectly illustrated how conservatives are plotting to eat your children. And there was Law & Order's Jesse Martin standing next to Sam Waterston as if to say, "NBC -- it's not just for lilly-white characters anymore!"

Here again, the electronic billboard conveyed news and information about NBC programs. "LAW & ORDER! TONIGHT!" or "WEST WING! 9 P.M.!" Only, that information wouldn't always be correct -- during the summer, when the billboard assured you that Crossing Jordan would be on that evening at 10 p.m., if you turned in expecting to see Jill Hennessy solving crimes in a series of low-cut tops, you would have actually found Meet My Folks, in which a parade of lunkheads competed for mom and dad's approval to debauch their daughter. And low-cut top or not, that's quite a comedown.

Other times, owing to burnt out light bulbs, the billboard would beam out utterly incomprehensible messages. Thanks to a missing "W" and ampersand, Law & Order became LA Order, causing many confused commuters to believe that Dick Wolf and Steven Bochco were teaming up for an hour-long series about New York cops who investigate criminals and the flashy, Southern California attorneys who prosecute them. And the billboard has never been able to master the letter "V," turning every promotion for Law & Order: SVU into an unwitting advertisement for Law & Order: SUU.

Which is another show entirely.

Perhaps most fittingly, the old NBC-3 billboard carried a slogan, this one displayed in paint instead of the more fickle electronic form: "The Quality Shows on NBC!" If it's anything like the quality showing on the billboard, I'm beginning to understand some of the network's programming decisions a little better.


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