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NBC Affiliates Upbeat on Network’s Schedule

May 25, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Newly anointed “Late Night” heir Jimmy Fallon collected business cards from NBC affiliate station executives when they met with network executives last week in Los Angeles and promised to visit local markets to promote his succession to Conan O’Brien in summer 2009.
Marci Burdick, the Schurz Communications executive who stepped down as chair of the NBC affiliates board at the end of last week’s daylong meeting, was heartened by Mr. Fallon’s determination and demeanor.
Ms. Burdick said affiliates “saw some positives on the programming front” at NBC after watching some clips of the new programming, presented by Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Universal Entertainment. Mr. Silverman talked at some length about his strategy for NBC, Ms. Burdick said.
She said there was “a lot of positive buzz on the re-emergence of the family hour” during hallway discussions among affiliate executives at the meeting. Affiliates also were “kind of” impressed with NBC’s plans for midseason big-event Sunday programming to start after the network’s Super Bowl broadcast ends its NFL offerings for the year.
“I think everybody is impressed with the schedule,” said new affiliates board Chairman Michael Fiorile, vice chairman and CEO of Dispatch Broadcast Group. He singled out NBC’s return to highly produced drama and comedies as cause for optimism.
Both network and affiliate executives say NBC’s ratings this season, when it finished fourth in both total viewers and the all-important 18-49 demographic in prime time, are cause for renewed effort.
The network’s bright spots remain news and late night, said NBC Network and Media Works President John Eck. The network is still No. 1 in morning news with “Today”; with “NBC Nightly News.” NBC leads across the board in late night.
“We know we’ve got an opportunity to improve in prime time,” Mr. Eck said.
NBC is counting on the Beijing Olympics in August, ongoing campaign coverage and the Super Bowl to provide sturdy platforms from which to promote the prime-time lineup.
NBC Universal Sports and NBC Olympics Chairman Dick Ebersol invited Peter Ueberroth, the head of the U.S. Olympics Committee, to help explain to affiliate executives the opportunities posed by the Olympics. Mr. Ueberroth, who organized the dazzling 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, touted the sports event’s possibilities for stations, including Olympics Web content.
The future of network broadcasting as a business also came to the fore at the meeting. Mr. Eck called it the beginning of “a frank exchange” on how audience fragmentation, time-shifting, play-shifting and on-demand are changing the nature of the business for both the network and the affiliates.
“We have a kind of a commitment going forward to examine together every aspect of our relationship, from the schedule itself, the relationship with each other, the relationship with cable and satellite, how we utilize our spectrum in terms of over-the-air broadcasting. We’re willing to have a frank exchange about how we should go forward so that this business can thrive for the next 50 years,” he said.
Mr. Eck added it’s time to go public with the conversation.
“We talk about it a lot, but it’s never really been talked about in an open forum,” he said. “[NBC Universal President and CEO] Jeff Zucker, myself and indeed the whole team, with the guidance of the board, just decided that it was worthwhile to have a frank discussion about the state of the business and the state of media-consumption habits.”
The network is committed to re-examining how it operates with affiliates, what programming is offered, and how and when it is offered. The discussions will include examination of the network’s relationships with affiliates, cable and satellite TV operators, he said.
Ms. Burdick said affiliates appreciated the frank nature of the network executives’ comments.
“We talked ahead of time with John and Jeff about how do we raise some of these issues that we’ve all been thinking about in our own business across the United States and at 30 Rock,” she said. “We think we’re smarter having that conversation together than doing it separately and approaching it antagonistically.”
On a more immediate front, affiliates got a look at the redesigned Web product for WeatherPlus.com, the site attached to the digital WeatherPlus channel in which the network and local stations are 50/50 partners.
The network announced a new partnership through which it will offer an embedded widget for playing any prime-time or late-night video clips affiliates want to put on their Web sites. Starting early next year, it will enable affiliates to embed full episodes from NBC.com on their own Web sites.
Details and deal points are still to come on two new network-affiliate revenue-sharing opportunities:
• A chance to participate in the investment NBC Universal made this year in DriverTV, in which it purchased a 35% stake. Affiliates will be offered on-air and online vignettes, some locally sponsorable, that give detailed analysis of every new car model available for purchase in the U.S.
• The planned launch in 2009 of a site for affiliates who wish to participate in mobile digital broadcasting. Business models are still being explored, Mr. Eck said.
“We put a lot of issues on the table. There are a lot of different viewpoints. That’s where we’ve really got to dig in.” Mr. Eck said.
Lest anyone suggest it sounds as if NBC might be looking to de-emphasize its over-the-air programming, Mr. Eck was clear: TV broadcasting is still the heart of NBC’s business.
“That’s how we have breakfast, lunch and dinner. But we want to look over the horizon. We want to look around corners. That’s where we can really add value—to look ahead.”

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