NBC Universal TV: Cable at a Crossroads

May 30, 2005  •  Post A Comment

NBC Universal’s various TV networks have cooperated in just about every stage of the programming business, from development to scheduling and promotion, since May 2004.

That’s when Jeff Gaspin was given the mandate to direct programming traffic across his company’s newly merged cable empire as president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Cross-Platform Strategy.

For example, “Hidden Howie,” a program starring Howie Mandel and originally developed for NBC, has found a home on Bravo; NBC plans to air at least one episode of Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” and USA Network’s “Kojak” revival this summer; and “Kojak” already has been featured on NBC’s “Today.”

But whether all this criss-crossing of programs, ads and hype has benefited NBCU’s cable entertainment properties-Bravo, Sci Fi, Trio and USA Network-is not yet clear.

During the past two quarters, average prime-time ratings have held fairly steady for USA, Bravo and Sci Fi, according to Nielsen Media Research. Trio is not rated. In the third quarter of last year, however, USA and Sci Fi enjoyed a clear spike compared with 2003-a jump that has not been equaled in subsequent quarters.

“I think USA and Sci Fi have benefited the most [of the cable entertainment networks],” media analyst Larry Gerbrandt said.

When NBC bought the U.S. entertainment assets of Vivendi Universal a year ago, the NBC Universal Television Group pledged a system of cooperation. Sci Fi head Bonnie Hammer was given oversight of USA, Trio President Lauren Zalaznick added responsibility for Bravo, and former Bravo President Mr. Gaspin ascended to head the entire cable entertainment group.

Among the biggest benefits the cross-platform strategy affords the company’s cable properties is access to the promotional power of NBC. A tentpole title for Sci Fi, Bravo or USA can receive a level of exposure that was economically impossible in years past. This July, for instance, NBC will air an undetermined number of episodes of Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” and USA’s “Kojak.”

Cross-platform is a double-edged sword, however, as networks must sacrifice their own airtime to help promote other NBC Universal efforts. Each major promotion push is dubbed “the priority.”

Such priority slots are limited. NBCU tends to pick titles for cross-promotion that have the greatest likelihood of success from its entire galaxy of media properties, which includes Universal Studios theatrical films and theme parks. So a summer priority schedule might read: USA’s “Kojak,” Universal’s “Cinderella Man” movie, Bravo’s “Project Greenlight” and Universal Studios’ “Fear Factor Live” show.

A tentpole cable show such as “Battlestar Galactica” can receive a massive boost in terms of exposure while a non-priority show may have to fight harder to get noticed than it would have pre-merger. Each network receives about four priorities per year.

Mr. Gaspin and NBC Universal Television Group President Jeffrey Zucker decide which shows will cross-pollinate to which networks.

“Overall we’ve been very happy with cross-platforming, but the underlying value of the show is still the greatest importance,” Mr. Gaspin said. “Shows that are too narrow or are not of high quality, [repurposing is] not going to help.”

Of the cable networks, Sci Fi arguably has enjoyed the best of both worlds. Sci Fi properties such as “Battlestar” and “Ghost Hunters” have received airtime on NBC, but NBC shows typically are incompatible with the Sci Fi brand. So Sci Fi has dodged having to give up its own time to rerun, say, NBC boxing show “The Contender,” unlike USA Network, which ran an episode in March.

But airing another network’s show is at best a marginal burden for a channel, Mr. Gaspin said. “Cable has so many hours to fill, one hour isn’t going to help or hurt [the host network],” he said. “Everybody knows if you want to have a priority in a month, you’re going to have to give up part of your inventory.”

One network that has not been involved in the cross-platforming game is Trio. Since the merger, Trio has been, to use NBC reality-speak, “the biggest loser.”

The arts network airs the same rerun schedule night after night, with no new shows or marketing initiatives on the horizon. Trio’s DirecTV contract lapsed in December, jettisoning half of the channel’s 20 million subscribers. NBCU has said the network’s survival depends on distributor interest, yet the company successfully renegotiated distribution renewals with DirecTV for its other networks and insiders said NBCU had enough clout to secure a renewal for Trio as well.

It seems unlikely that leaving the network adrift for a year to slowly diminish in distribution and stature was the company’s master plan for Trio. But Mr. Gaspin said Trio’s current status is not unexpected.

“We did exactly what we said we’d do,” he said. “We’ve spent the last six to eight months looking at alternative forms of distribution. We’ve continued to keep it alive.”

NBCU’s internal advertising firm, The NBC Agency, has played a limited role in the company’s cross-platform strategy. It has frequently worked with Bravo, less so with USA and Sci Fi. The upcoming “Characters Welcome” branding campaign for USA, for example, was contracted to outside agencies.