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Buyers Gird for NBC Schedule Presentation

Mar 30, 2008  •  Post A Comment

When NBC unveils its prime-time schedule Wednesday, weeks ahead of the traditional broadcast upfront presentations in May, business and strategy is likely to be the star, rather than any new big-budget show.
The Writers Guild of America strike upset the broadcasters’ seasons as well as their development process. For some of the networks, that created an opportunity to change the way they present programming to sponsors and ad buyers.
NBC, which is stumbling in audience ratings and last year didn’t keep pace with other networks’ price increases during the upfront, has made the most radical changes. In February, it announced it would deliver a 52-week schedule in April, much earlier than normal.
Once the schedule is out, programming and sales executives will begin small meetings with ad buyers to discuss the marketing opportunities involving those shows, NBC representatives said.
Part of the pitch will be an invitation to include sponsors earlier in discussions of how to integrate products into shows, NBC said. Ben Silverman, who joined NBC Entertainment as co-chairman alongside Marc Graboff after last year’s upfront, honed his product-integration chops at his production shop Reveille for years.
At the meeting, NBC expects to present a full slate for 2008 on a quarter-by-quarter basis. In some cases, a final decision may not have been made on a show or time slot, and the network will spell out its options.
NBC’s business and programming strategy will be front and center and the network doesn’t plan to pin its hopes on any one big project as it has in the past few years with the likes of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” or “Bionic Woman.”
How much of NBC’s schedule will hold up is anyone’s guess. Buyers point out that many new shows get canceled after a couple of episodes. Last year, NBC presented its lineup on Monday of upfront week and had changed it by the following Thursday.
Other networks have adjusted their upfront plans in the wake of the strike, with CBS and The CW toning down their festivities and ABC eschewing its customary shindig.
Comparisons with last year’s total upfront market sales of $9.2 billion may be difficult in 2008 because the networks are approaching this year differently. The 100-day writers strike affected their ability to generate programming on a regular schedule, and both networks and buyers are exploring different ways of doing business.
As a follow-up to this week’s meeting, NBC Universal is planning a presentation in May showcasing all of its media assets, from cable networks to the FuelCast network, which puts ads and programming on screens over gas pumps. That will be followed by the traditional cocktail party at the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink, complete with appearances by stars of NBC shows.
While getting in front of advertisers first won’t put NBC at the head of their must-buy list, most buyers said they liked the idea that NBC is opening up more of the program-development process to sponsors.
“It’s very, very early. They’re trying something new. We’ll support them,” said Andy Donchin, director of national media at Carat.
If some details aren’t settled, Mr. Donchin said, he would prefer that NBC wait before rolling out programs. “If you take more time to nurture the show and figure out what’s going to work, we’re OK with that,” Mr. Donchin said.
Although Mr. Silverman is well known to branded-entertainment executives at agencies from his work at production company Reveille, buyers say he hasn’t yet spent much time with them.
Mr. Silverman has his work cut out for him.
NBC is in the rear of the pack within the Big Four in most season to-date ratings categories as of March 23. In the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic, NBC is tied for third with CBS with a 3.0 rating/8 share. At this time last year, NBC was a clear-cut fourth with a 3.3 rating/9 share.
Fox, which aired this year’s Super Bowl, is in first with a 4.3 rating/12 share. ABC is in second with a 3.1 rating/8 share. The fifth-place CW has a 1.0 rating/3 share season-to-date, down 23% from this time last year.
In total viewers, the Peacock network places fourth with 8.5 million this season. This time last year, NBC’s average was 9.4 million, still fourth. In comparison, first-place Fox’s total average viewership so far this year is 11.5 million.
Mr. Silverman did a good job steering NBC through the writers strike-ravaged February sweep with a combination of comparatively strong reality fare, such as “American Gladiators,” which is returning, and the TV movie “Knight Rider.” During the sweep, NBC’s ratings were off only slightly from last year, and the network finished third in the 18- to 49-year-old demo.
NBC pointed out that the network has made strides in lowering its median audience age, which is now 47.7. This time last year, NBC’s median viewer age was 47.9. CBS and ABC saw a slight upturn in median age year-to-year.
Mr. Silverman and Mr. Graboff may be able to answer several open questions about NBC shows that risk cancellation, including “Friday Night Lights” and “Scrubs.”
Buyers said they expected NBC to keep its big hit, “Heroes,” on Monday night, rather than move it to Thursday, a night more important to advertisers. Currently, NBC’s well-regarded comedies finish third in the ratings on Thursday and long-running medical drama “ER” is flagging as it approaches a final season.

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