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Barrett: NBC Must ‘Play to Win’

Oct 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

One of NBC’s most influential affiliate representatives appeared skeptical last week of the network’s plans to focus programming for the 8 p.m. hour on unscripted shows and other relatively inexpensive fare.

NBC must “play to win for 22 hours of prime time” rather than attack the 8 o’clock hour with “a one-size-fits-all approach,” Hearst-Argyle Television President and CEO David Barrett said during an earnings call Oct. 26.

With 11 NBC affiliates in its station group, Hearst-Argyle Television has a powerful voice in affiliate-network discussions. Executives from the station group also work closely with NBC executives on joint ventures such as the digital NBC Weather Plus service.

NBC’s 8 p.m. change in course was discussed as part of the NBCU 2.0 restructuring and cost-cutting plan announced two weeks ago. NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker clarified the strategy to TelevisionWeek in an interview after the announcement of the restructuring, saying it was not a dramatic departure for the network (TVWeek, Oct. 23).

“We have already evolved very much to this strategy. We’re not going to get rid of `My Name Is Earl’ and `The Office’ out of 8 o’clock,” Mr. Zucker told TVWeek. “It is not about getting rid of `Friday Night Lights.’ … What we’re saying is it just most likely would be on at 9 o’clock, not 8.”

He pointed out that the network already schedules game show “Deal or No Deal” and “1 vs. 100” in 8 p.m. slots, so the transformation would affect just two nights of programming: Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We are so close to this already,” Mr. Zucker said. “The viewer is not going to know the difference.”

During the Hearst-Argyle earnings call, Mr. Barrett was asked how the prime-time restructuring might affect NBC affiliates, who have had to go along on NBC’s roller coaster ride from first to fourth place among 18- to 49-year-olds.

“It is too early to tell what the ramifications will be, but from the outside looking in, it appears their 2.0 program is that company’s response to its own business pressures,” Mr. Barrett said. “I’m sure much of what they’re doing makes sense. Perhaps all of it does. We’re not enamored with a one-size-fits-all approach to programming the 8 o’clock hour. I will note that NBC has backpedaled away from that.”

Mr. Barrett said all the affiliates accept the importance of a strong programming commitment by that network.

“It is what has led them to huge profitability in the past, and it is what is leading the way for Fox and CBS and ABC to a certain extent,” Mr. Barrett said. “They’ve got to be investing in the content at that network if we are going to be successful, but I think we’re going to have to watch and wait and see.”

An NBCU spokesperson said, “NBCU always plays to win, which is why we will continue to deliver three hours of quality programming each night that meets our viewers expectations. We listen to the audience and aim to provide them with the programming they want to watch.”

The 8 p.m. programming philosophy developed after network executives analyzed the performance of all 8 p.m. shows on the Big 4 broadcast networks in the last six years, said Rebecca Marks, executive VP of publicity for the NBC Universal Television Group.

The picture that emerged: More unscripted shows than scripted dramas and comedies averaged a 5.0 rating in the coveted 18 to 49 demo.

Ms. Marks said the context and background for the comments about the programming strategy got lost in the crush of headlines about the plans to cut 5 percent of NBCU’s workforce and $750 million annually in administrative and operating costs in the next two years.

Mr. Barrett said he and other affiliates that need strong lead-ins for their late local newscasts consider the 10 p.m. hour the most important time period, but pointed out that the 8 p.m. performance has bearing on how the network does at 10.

“NBC’s success over the years has been set up by running very successful nights that start at 8 p.m.,” Mr. Barrett said. “I don’t want to minimize that. The fact is that I think last week in the 10 o’clock hour NBC won but two nights. ABC won two nights and CBS won three nights. If one looks at just that data from last week, NBC has lost ground at 10 o’clock at night for its affiliates on a household basis.” “I’m not going to take lightly this retreat from 8 o’clock thinking that everything is A-OK at 10,” he added. “This is a business where there is an audience flow, the lead-in programming is important and sets up the night. And I think they’ve got to play to win for 22 hours of prime time.”

Mr. Barrett has a long-standing reputation for blunt talk. He said, “The biggest challenge that all of us have as we run businesses is distinguishing between what costs are necessary to build and grow your business and what costs are extraneous and unnecessary; and it is a decision that our operators are making every day, and is a decision that every company is making every day. NBC makes a lot of fanfare out of these kinds of day-to-day management decisions. Our hope is that they get it right.”

Without being able to analyze attitudinal research, it is difficult to decipher the difference between the strength of a genre and the strength of individual programs, said Steve Ridge, executive VP of Frank N. Magid Associates, a media research and consulting firm.

“It is very difficult to say that there is an absolute correlation” between unscripted programming and success at 8,” Mr. Ridge said.