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NBC keeps its torch lit

May 14, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Jeff Zucker is going on a crime spree.
In his first upfront presentation since becoming entertainment president for NBC, Mr. Zucker will unveil six new series — three dramas and three comedies — to join the fall 2001 schedule. About five hours of that fall schedule will be filled with crime-oriented dramas.
Key moves include revamping the entire Sunday night lineup — jettisoning NBC’s longtime 9 p.m.-to-11 p.m. (ET) movie showcase — giving newcomer “Inside Schwartz” the coveted but cursed 8:30 p.m. Thursday slot out of “Friends,” and awarding the single-camera medical comedy “Scrubs” the 9:30 p.m. Tuesday slot coming out of “Frasier.”
Mr. Zucker is cognizant of building upon NBC’s broad, upscale ratings profile with glossy, thought-provoking dramas and comedies such as current hits “The West Wing” and “Will & Grace.”
“It’s no great secret that we’ve had our troubles on Saturdays through Tuesdays, so we’re going to be looking for other good shows that are consistent with the NBC brand when its comes to smart, upscale shows,” Mr. Zucker said last week, just before departing for the upfront meeting in New York.
At deadline Friday, NBC’s fall schedule looked like this (all times ET):
* Sunday — 7 p.m. “Dateline NBC,” 8 p.m. “Weakest Link,” 9 p.m. “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” 10 p.m. “Undercover” (also known as “U.C.”).
* Monday — 8 p.m. “Weakest Link,” 9 p.m. “Third Watch,” 10 p.m. “Crossing Jordan.”
* Tuesday — 8 p.m. “Emeril,” 8:30 p.m. “Three Sisters,” 9 p.m. “Frasier,” 9:30 p.m. “Scrubs,” 10 p.m. “Dateline NBC.”
* Wednesday — 8 p.m. “Ed,” 9 p.m. “The West Wing,” 10 p.m. “Law & Order.”
* Thursday — 8 p.m. “Friends,” 8:30 p.m. “Inside Schwartz,” 9 p.m. “Will & Grace,” 9:30 p.m. “Just Shoot Me,” 10 p.m. “ER.”
* Friday — 8 p.m. “Providence,” 9 p.m. “Dateline,” 10 p.m. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
* Saturday — 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. NBC Saturday Night Movie.
Mr. Zucker’s new schedule has some inherent risks, but it also does not deviate much from NBC’s growing appetite for highly rated, crime-oriented series (and flip, adult-oriented comedies like “Friends” and “Frasier”).
“NBC is crime time in prime time,” joked one Hollywood talent agency series packager. “Between all of the `Law & Order’ spinoffs and `Dateline’s’ tie-ins with Court TV, you’d have to think NBC is playing the crime and criminal justice cards heavily next season.”
Bob Igiel, president of broadcast buying at New York-based Media Edge, said Mr. Zucker is cutting his teeth with his first major programming moves on Sunday and has “exhibited a real willingness to address” NBC’s other programming gaps on Monday and Tuesday.
“The strategic moves Zucker is talking about making on Sunday with a drama-heavy lineup is a major shift. It is nothing like the kind of tweaking he’s toyed around with earlier this season,” Mr. Igiel said. “To start the new season, [Mr. Zucker] has to strengthen Monday, rebuild Tuesday to a large extent — and Sunday is clearly his big renovation project.”
While Sunday marks the largest wholesale overhaul early in Mr. Zucker’s regime as programming chief, finding a show to lead out of “Friends” is one of his biggest priorities.
For the first time in years, NBC’s dominance on Thursdays was successfully challenged by “Survivor II” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” “Survivor II” is the No. 1 show for the season to date, beating out “ER,” and CBS is planning to kick off the fall season with “Survivor III,” set in Africa.
Media buyers look at Thursday as the linchpin behind NBC’s ongoing dominance of the adults 18 to 49 demographic this season, and many feel NBC’s Thursday lineup was damaged by “Survivor II’s” run.
“NBC did hold up pretty well, but I don’t know how they can ignore the fact that even `Survivor II’s’ town hall reunion beat `ER,’ which would have been considered unthinkable before this season,” said Paul Schulman, president of media-buying firm Advanswers PHD New York. “If [NBC] doesn’t develop an 8:30 Thursday hit soon, I’d be concerned about the year or two from now when `Friends’ might not be around anymore.”
Mr. Zucker, however, insisted that CBS had minimal impact on NBC’s “Must-See TV” lineup.
“To be honest, we’re looking for a strong 8:30 Thursday show, but not because of `Survivor’ or anything else,” Mr. Zucker said. “Quite frankly, the media has missed the boat on what happened this season, because our Thursday lineup has done a 9.6 rating [in adults 18 to 49] this season, exactly the same as the 9.6 rating we averaged last season. The success for CBS is great, and I applaud and congratulate them, but it has had no impact on us — zero.”
The lucky winner — and eighth series — to get the post-“Friends” berth this fall is 20th Century Fox Television’s “Inside Schwartz,” about a male sports geek who must face entering the dating scene. “The point I want to hit home on during our presentation is that we’re going to present a schedule with tremendous stability and underlying strength,” Mr. Zucker said. “We’re about to win the May [2001] sweeps by the biggest margin [in adults 18 to 49] that any one of the networks has scored in a sweeps in two years.”
Coming out of the week of “Survivor: The Australian Outback’s” grand finale ratings spike for CBS, NBC’s 4.8 rating/14 share average in adults 18 to 49 for the May sweeps to date (April 26-May 6) held a narrow 9 percent advantage over CBS’s second-ranked 4.4/13 score, according to Nielsen Media Research.
With NBC awaiting big ratings returns for the season finales of “Friends,” “Will & Grace” and “ER” last Thursday, NBC researchers are predicting that NBC could hold up to a 20 percent May sweeps ) victory margin in adults 18 to 49 over the nearest network competitor — either Fox or ABC.
NBC last held the record May sweeps margin in adults 18 to 49 (6.0 rating), a 30 percent bulge over Fox’s and ABC’s identical second-place scores (4.6 rating) in May 1999.
On the flip side, though, NBC’s most current adults 18 to 49 sweeps average represents 7 percent slippage from the comparable year-ago sweeps period. Nevertheless, NBC researchers expect the network to win all three major sweeps periods outright in adults 18 to 49 this season, marking the eighth time the Peacock Network has done so since the 1982-83 season.
Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast, will deliver a similar message focusing on NBC’s longtime hold on upscale demographics.
“I don’t think I’m going to be going out on a limb by predicting that we will win the season in adults 18 to 49, but I’m also going to be talking about how we continue to out-index all of the networks in upper-income brackets,” Mr. Sassa said. “We want to push home the point that we still reach the people with the most purchasing power, people who make the buying decisions in their households.”
Both Mr. Sassa and Mr. Zucker have clearly made public the mantra that NBC remains intent on being a broadcaster that reaches the 18 to 54 adult demographics. Despite continued concerns from buyers about the perceived aging of “Friends” and “ER,” and suggestions that NBC follow Fox’s and The WB’s successful narrower-focused programming strategies, both Peacock executives are sticking to their guns on developing and launching adult-oriented series.
“In some ways, we’re cursed in that we need not only to get great demo ratings, but we also need to maintain our broad circulation of men and women,” Mr. Sassa said. “It is just that we need to keep those big adults 18 to 49, 25 to 54 and 35 to 54 rating numbers without risking disenfranchising any of those groups. We are a broadcaster, which means reaching a broad spectrum of the audience, and we’re not about to make any changes in that winning formula.”
Nevertheless, NBC, like the other five major broadcast networks, could find it hard achieving even single-digit percentage cost-per-thousand or gross ad sales revenue increases with the currently slumping economy.
But Keith Turner, NB
C’s president of ad sales and marketing, contends that overall spending, including last year’s upfront and subsequent quarterly national scatter markets, is “actually up” on a year-to-year basis.
“It is way too early to tell,” he said. “We’re not going to now know [whether NBC’s upfront tally increases over its $2.4 billion take last year] until the money shows up after the presentations.”
Whatever is the case with the ad market, the coordination between NBC’s West Coast programming and New York operational divisions appears to have meshed better in terms of controlling costs and gaining ownership interests in TV series airing on the Peacock.
That spirit of cooperation between both coasts may have been furthered last week, with Andrew Lack, previously president of NBC News, becoming president and chief operating officer of the NBC Television Network. It could also be a move that bodes well for Mr. Zucker, who worked with Mr. Lack during the former’s stints as executive producer of the “Today” show
“I think [Mr. Lack’s promotion] is good on several levels, because he has been in a position for the last years which crossed all divisional lines,” Mr. Zucker said. “So much of the bottom line has been made out of the fact that Andy and I come out of news. But at the end of the day, we are both producers and programmers. Whether those skills are being used in the news division, the sports division or entertainment — those are the same places Don Ohlmeyer [the former president of NBC West Coast] and Dick Ebersol [once president of NBC News; now president of NBC Sports] successfully came out of.”
Sam Haskell, president of worldwide television at the William Morris Agency, said “closer-knit” execution between the West Coast and East Coast executives could lead to “better execution” with NBC Chairman Bob Wright’s overall “strategic initiatives” for the broadcast network, its cable network properties (CNBC and MSNBC) and other investments (Paxson Communications and Pax TV).
“I don’t think they ever lacked a strong connection, but I do think it will make an easier execution of the vision [Mr. Wright] is putting forward,” Mr. Haskell said. “It also helps that both Jeff and Scott are extremely bright, where you have two leaders who know what they want to see in a [series] pitch, what works, what doesn’t — being honest and direct to the point. Jeff also has security in his own vision, which, in turn gives security to those of us who sell [series] to him that our shows and our clients’ ideas will be nurtured and properly executed.”
The level of coordination and communication with Mr. Sassa and Mr. Zucker also has NBC Studios President Ted Harbert appreciating the difference down the street in Burbank, Calif. Mr. Harbert’s in-house studio division benefited from four series orders on the fall schedule, along with drama “Chestnut Hill” and sitcom “Leap of Faith” being ordered for midseason.
“When you need to do a good job producing a larger number of programs, frankly, it is getting great access and great lines of communication with the buyer or the network which is paramount,” Mr. Harbert said. “The great thing here is that I can pop down the hall 30 feet to Scott’s office or go right down the stairs to Jeff’s office, or e-mail both of them, and I can expect an answer in two minutes. The advantage is priceless.”
However, Mr. Sassa, who admits to calling Mr. Zucker as early as 5:30 a.m. to share ideas, has one advantage on Mr. Harbert in the personal communication department.
“We are connected by a vast, secret stairway, so we run back and forth a lot to spend time in each other’s offices — almost too much time,” he said with a laugh.