In Depth

Zucker Calls for Broadcast Changes

NBC Universal President-CEO Jeff Zucker gave a candid state-of-the-broadcast-union address Tuesday at the National Association of Television Program Executives convention in Las Vegas. In the speech, he sought to unify and clarify several of his recent headline-making statements about the future of NBC.

Mr. Zucker reiterated his call for reduced spending on traditional broadcast models such as pilots, development deals and upfront presentations.

“For many years, if there is one thing everyone could count on at an industry meeting like this, it was that if a head of a media company was up here, he or she would talk about how broadcast television has a strong and robust future in spite of all the challenges,” Mr. Zucker said to a packed ballroom. “It has been a great run. But today, we need a different message. … I can’t come here with the usual cliches about the endurance of broadcasting in the form we have always known. We must acknowledge that a significant part of our industry is under incredible pressure and has to change.”

Jeffery Zucker Keynote at NATPE

Mr. Zucker called the Writers Guild of America strike a catalyst for change, likening the work stoppage to a destructive forest fire that precipitates robust growth.

Mr. Zucker then addressed several NBC initiatives that he’s announced since the start of the strike:

—Regarding pilots: Mr. Zucker emphasized that reducing pilot orders and embracing direct-to-series commitments does not mean a reduction of scripted programming. NBC will order about five pilots a year instead of the usual 20.

“People want to ridicule the idea of making fewer pilots,” he said. “It’s usually those who have a vested interest in perpetuating the inefficiencies of the system. As I have said, this is not about making less programs. It’s about making less waste.”

—Regarding the annual upfront presentation to advertisers, Mr. Zucker came a step closer to officially announcing that NBC will not offer a show in New York this year.

“We will have a formal announcement very soon,” he said, hinting that top NBC Universal executives are making their May travel plans to meet individually with advertisers.

“We believe the big show is a vestige of the last decade,” he said. “What matters is the new schedule and the rationale behind it. … If we do scrap the big presentation, we will be committed to going to every one of the major advertising agencies, in person, and every one of the major advertisers, to explain the schedule, explain the rationale and deliver episodes.”

During a Q&A after his speech, Mr. Zucker added that NBC might stage some kind of small upfront event in May and that he did not expect his competitors to follow suit this year.

“We will try to do an event in May that brings together all the aspects of the company,” he said. “We probably will be on our own in doing this at the start. Like everything else, if it’s successful, others will follow.”

—Regarding the Television Critics Association’s semi-annual press tour: With January’s TCA canceled due to the strike, Mr. Zucker hinted that NBC’s participation is not necessarily assured should the event resume this summer.

“There was no winter press tour this year, with the nation’s television critics, and even without that press coverage, we at NBC are enjoying the best winter performance of our new and returning shows in many years,” he said.

—Regarding the FCC: Mr. Zucker called for the Federal Communications Commission to re-examine its policies regulating broadcasters in light of the competitive field.

“Audiences have many sources for news, weather and entertainment, most of which do not require a broadcast license and most of which do not have strong local components,” he said. “If Washington did take on a comprehensive examination of what regulatory policies make sense for today, many of the regulatory initiatives that have been in the spotlight over the last few years would be seen in a new and different light.”

Mr. Zucker was asked if he would still endorse such sweeping changes in the broadcast model if NBC was not typically in fourth place among the major broadcast networks.

“We have not been as successful in prime time, and that has clearly changed this season,” he said. “The momentum is with NBC Entertainment, [but] whether we’re in first place or fourth place, we have to change.”