At NBC, the ratings math is getting tough to spin.
All season, the network’s mantra to media has been: “We’re in fourth place, but we’re doing better than last year.”
As of two weeks ago, that’s no longer the case.
Despite adding Sunday Night Football last fall and launching the season’s top-rated new drama, “Heroes,” the network is down 3 percent among adults 18 to 49 compared to last year, season-to-date. It’s also in fourth place in total viewers.
Moreover, the week ending April 2 was the network’s lowest-rated week of in-season programming since at least 1991 (with a 2.2 average rating among adults 18 to 49, according to Nielsen). Five nights a week, the network is running behind last season, with football-aided Sunday and “Heroes”-driven Monday the exceptions.
With “The Office,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Heroes” and “30 Rock,” NBC arguably has more critically acclaimed shows than any other broadcaster. But “Lights” and “Rock” have not yet found an audience, and there have been several freshman misses.
Vince Manze, newly appointed as NBC’s president of program planning, scheduling and strategy, said the absence of new episodes of “Heroes,” “My Name Is Earl” and “ER” in the first quarter of 2007 was one culprit in the ratings drain.
Mr. Manze, who recently moved over from running the company’s advertising and promotions division, NBC Agency, to accept the newly created position, said, “I’m going to do everything I can to minimize that in the first quarter next year. We need to have some loud launches in the first quarter, and we didn’t have that.”
For the first few months of the season, NBC was the only broadcaster that could claim to have improved its overall performance. But between Fox’s “American Idol” and the early return of Daylight Saving Time, the first quarter has been very tough on all the broadcast networks. Series have regularly hit all-time lows throughout March and early April. NBC, already in fourth place among viewers 18-49, was especially hard-hit.
“[Last week is] not something we’re putting on our resume … but we’re not panicking either,” he said. “We’ve figured out how to do the first half of the year, and we are still figuring out the second half. It’s tough with ‘Dancing With the Stars’ and ‘Idol’ rampaging throughout the entire schedule.”
Sunday Night Football was an expensive addition for the network, and NBC has been unable to draw its football audience to any new shows that night. But Mr. Manze said it was “absolutely” worth the investment.
“Would ‘Heroes’ have been a big hit on Monday without football to promote it on Sunday?” he asked.
In addition to adding more original shows in first quarter 2008, Mr. Manze said he plans to use his NBC Agency marketing background to drum up more stunts and themes to enliven the slate. Mr. Manze also is looking for ways to revive Saturday nights, which broadcasters have largely abandoned.
“I do think we have very good events in May,” he said. “I’m expecting max numbers from them. And I certainly want to add as much new programming as possible in summer.”
John Rash, senior VP/director of media negotiations at ad buyer Campbell Mithun, said he doesn’t expect the tipping of NBC’s seasonal ratings scale to affect their upfront dealings.
“It’s been difficult for every network, any show, to gain traction, and NBC has had clear creative breakthroughs with ’30 Rock’ and ‘Friday Night Lights.’ And yet the commercial success is still elusive outside of ‘Heroes,'” Mr. Rash said. “That there’s been audience erosion won’t shock any negotiators. What will matter is NBC’s plans to turn it around.”