Playing to win

Jan 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

One year into his job as programming chief at NBC, Jeff Zucker prides himself on returning the Peacock Network to its winning ways in the key adults 18 to 49 demographic and for adding a handful of new series that will return for the 2002-03 season.
Mr. Zucker’s unorthodox instincts, which led him to increase the running times of hit series and prod NBC to make a successful first foray into highly rated alternative series such as “Fear Factor,” “Spy TV” and “Weakest Link,” have won him early kudos-even from competing network executives.
“Jeff is clearly an out-of-the-box thinker,” testified Fox Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow. Mr. Grushow was speaking in reference to Mr. Zucker’s recent November sweeps stunt to lengthen a celebrity edition of “Fear Factor” by seven minutes in an attempt to disrupt viewer flow to Fox’s critically received “24” drama.
Indeed, Mr. Zucker’s guerrilla-like scheduling stunts had somewhat kept network competitors, namely CBS and Fox, pushed back on their heels. Only a few months into the job last season, it was Mr. Zucker who came up with the idea of doing “super-size” 40-minute episodes of “Friends” and “Will & Grace,” effectively holding back CBS’s “Survivor: The Australian Outback” from scoring wins in the adults 18 to 49 demographics during the May 2001 sweeps. He has also concocted a special all-Playboy Playmate episode of “Fear Factor” for a two-part telecast on the night the 2002 Super Bowl airs-Feb. 3. The first 20-minute part of the special will air during halftime and the one-hour conclusion will be broadcast immediately following the Super Bowl.
As he parlayed NBC’s first summer fling with reality/alternative into ratings success, Mr. Zucker reshaped “Weakest Link” into a celebrity-driven game show (or comedy show, as he describes it) to keep it fresh for the young-adult demos. More than anything, Mr. Zucker takes glee in noting that NBC maintained its lead and established growth in the adults 18 to 49 and upscale $75,000-plus demos last summer with original reality programming.
“We have taken great pride in what we have accomplished because we had a clear strategy,” said Mr. Zucker. “We used the reality shows to keep the lights on this past summer and … as a platform to promote the launch of our fall shows. At a time when many of the critics were writing us off, the viewers were the ones who responded, and that paid off in great success this season.”
“What was great is that Jeff did not come on with preconceived notions about long-held conventions toward series development or scheduling. Yet he also brought strong producing and creative instincts into the [NBC Entertainment] job from the very beginning,” said Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast.
The next big thing
A Harvard graduate and a wunderkind of NBC’s “Today” show in two executive producing stints, Mr. Zucker has indeed proven his worth as a quick study of programming and promotional schemes to draw in viewers. Three of NBC’s six new scripted series developed under Mr. Zucker’s watch-“Scrubs,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Crossing Jordan”-appeared to have hit critical ratings mass and have been renewed for a second season. However, Mr. Zucker is still seeking better audience retention and aims to reverse some high-single- to double-digit percentage erosion in adults 18 to 49 for the network this season.
Along with the additions of those shows, “Friends” entered this season undergoing what critics say is a creative renaissance as the top-rated series on television. Returning shows “Law & Order,” “Will & Grace,” “The West Wing,” “ER” and “Frasier” also hold top 20 rankings in adults 18 to 49 ratings. That nucleus contributed to NBC taking the key adults 18 to 49 demo race during the November sweeps-in addition to winning or tying for first in the key demo in each of the past five sweeps periods. Moreover, NBC has held its adults 18 to 49 crown in five of the past six seasons.
At the same time, Mr. Zucker will have to address some early miscues he has made in the sitcom arena. Topping that list is the ill-fated “Emeril,” which has been replaced by “Imagine That”-a show that doesn’t look as though it will have a long life span since it has been skewered by the critics and premiered to disappointing ratings earlier this month. TV critics also aren’t too hot on Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ new midseason sitcom “Watching Ellie.”
Room for improvement
Another continuing trouble spot for NBC has been the 8:30 p.m. Thursday time slot, which has seen almost 10 sitcoms fail to hold the “Friends” lead-in over the last six years. This season, the jinx has continued, with the departing “Inside Schwartz” dropping 30 percent of the “Friends” audience and joining “Emeril” among the top five “worst” shows in Electronic Media’s Fall 2001 Critics Poll (Jan. 7).
Mr. Zucker made a point of noting that when “Scrubs” twice filled in for “Inside Schwartz” during the November sweeps, “Scrubs” only held about 66 percent of “Friends”’ 18 to 49 viewers. “What it shows you is that [it is] difficult to follow such a phenomenally rated show like `Friends,’ and that it is nothing to be ashamed about in losing about one-third of its viewers,” Mr. Zucker said. “If you look at CBS’s second-highest-rated sitcom, `Becker,’ it typically retains about 72 percent of its `Everybody Loves Raymond’ lead-in.”
Lacking a breakout sitcom in recent seasons, Mr. Zucker has made it no secret that, “The goal is to find the next comedy hit.” That’s the key to maintaining the Peacock’s dominance of the adults 18 to 49 demo, he said. He is busily working on several other midseason comedy prospects.
On track
With this February’s broadcast of the Winter 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City (the first U.S.-based Winter Games in 22 years), Mr. Zucker has plans to use it as a promotional springboard for the sitcom launches of “Watching Ellie” and “Leap of Faith” in the last week of February.
“Definitely, we think NBC is on track to return to the smart, funny and upscale sitcoms that have been a signature of this network,” Mr. Zucker said. Basing his projections on the ratings momentum to be gained from the Olympics and insertion of the midseason sitcoms, Mr. Zucker makes bold predictions that NBC will hold off CBS and Fox to win adults 18 to 49, households and total viewers this season.
“Certainly, the Olympics will be the biggest event of the season, and it will be a great two weeks of television [Feb. 8 to 24], but it will be one of several components that will help define our success this season,” Mr. Zucker said. “The Olympics will … define what it is to be a broadcaster, but it also comes to strong returning and new series. That’s why at the end of the day, we will win demographics [adults 18 to 49], households and total viewers for the season.”