Summer strategy becomes necessity

Jul 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien couldn’t resist ribbing NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker when noting why former NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa had not joined him on the lectern for the Television Critics Association press tour last week in Pasadena, Calif.
“All I know is that Jeff took Scott deep-sea fishing. Jeff came back, Scott didn’t,” Mr. O’Brien said.
Mr. Zucker-with the elan of a Mafia don who has power over all NBC programming assets-exhaustively highlighted for the critics NBC’s prime-time victory in adults 18 to 49 last season and this summer’s success with unscripted reality programming. But despite NBC’s success in launching “Dog Eat Dog,” “Meet My Folks” and “Crime & Punishment,” Mr. Zucker cited the cable networks for simultaneously stealing critical recognition and ratings in their launches of high-gloss scripted series at different times of the year.
“I think in four years we’re going to have 52 weeks of original programming, and a lot of that summer programming will be scripted programming,” he said. “But the fact is we couldn’t get there that quickly.”
NBC launched its only original scripted drama of the summer, “She Spies,” July 20 as part of an innovative four-episode “preview” window on the network before NBC Enterprises debuts the series in syndication this fall. Co-production and barter advertising partner MGM Worldwide Television is picking up much of the first-year production cost on “She Spies.”
Mr. Zucker pledged to the critics his desire to launch more scripted series in summer 2003. “I have a goal [for] next summer of getting through at least two scripted series, which is not to say we won’t have this unscripted programming,” Mr. Zucker said. “We have to be competitive and original in the summer and compete, and it’s going to be a mixture of those different kind of programs. To be a network today, you have to program from `The West Wing’ to `Fear Factor.’ It’s very much what a network is, just as HBO programs from `The Sopranos’ to `Taxicab Confessions.”’
As for how NBC will mount the additional expense of producing at least two new scripted series, other than using the split network/syndication platforms to introduce low-cost scripted series in the summer, Mr. Zucker loosely elaborated a plan to bypass the entire pilot process.
“We’re not going to spend the same amount of money … we spend on the high-end quality dramas we do in the fall,” he said. “What we have to do is to figure out an economic model that will have lower-cost programming. That is why we will go straight to series rather than going through the whole [pilot] process and figure it out that way, on a going-forward basis.”
And although Fox has unseated NBC for the past three weeks in the adults 18 to 49 demo with such hit reality series as “American Idol” and “30 Seconds to Fame,” Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman largely talked of using unscripted programming as an engine to drive the summer schedule.
“We have created a strong and competitive schedule for the coming season, and unlike last year, our aggressive summer strategy is keeping the lights on and ensuring that our fall shows get exposure throughout July and August,” Ms. Berman said.
One of the hot-button subjects of this summer’s TCA tour-product placement-drew some pointed questions from critics. Asked whether “American Idol’s” liberal incorporation of Ford and Coca-Cola visual plugs indicated that such practice would become standard on Fox’s future unscripted series, Fox Television Entertainment Group Chairman Sandy Grushow said, “There’s no question that it’s an important component of our future, particularly as it relates to unscripted television. As far as the scripted angle is considered, it’s much more difficult on the scripted front. … [We are] dealing with actors … dealing with economic considerations.
“The one thing I’ll say about product placement is it feels a little bit like repurposing felt like last year at this time-that somehow it was the panacea that was going to cure all of the economic ills of the industry-and I don’t think that’s the case. I think what we are looking at is a drop in the bucket. We’re talking about $8 billion in traditional advertising on the six broadcast networks. I don’t think that’s going to be replaced by $8 billion worth of product placement.”