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NBC Remains Keen on Scripted

May 3, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Beset by lagging ratings and a spate of failed new shows, NBC intends to answer critics this week with a new commitment to scripted programs—albeit none at 10 p.m.
By now, NBC’s story is familiar. The General Electric-owned network, which dominated the ratings for years on the strength of “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” Frasier,” “Law & Order” and “ER,” has depleted the ranks of its powerhouse programs and struggled to replenish them. Then NBC surprised the industry when it revealed it was slotting in a weeknight talk show hosted by “The Tonight Show” host Jay Leno at 10 p.m.
The network hopes to start a new chapter today when it gives advertisers a taste of its coming fall schedule during the series of meetings it has dubbed an “infront.” The individual presentations, to be held with firms including Aegis Group’s Carat and Publicis Groupe’s Starcom USA, take place several weeks ahead of the other networks’ upfront meetings in the hopes of sparking earlier negotiations.
During its infront, NBC is likely to emphasize its commitment to creating customized promotions that tie in to specific programs.
When it comes to scripted fare, “We will probably have a higher concentration than anyone, I would think, except maybe CBS,” Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, told Advertising Age.
Having Mr. Leno’s program on five hours a week “enables us to surgically focus on more scripted programming,” he added, which the network “would have moved away from if we had not had Jay on the schedule.”
In fact, Friday nights on NBC, which in recent months have been filled with “Dateline” and reality fare such as “Howie Do It” and “Deal or No Deal,” will feature scripted content in the fall, he said.
NBC’s programming difficulties have taken their toll. NBC’s ad revenue fell to about $4.98 billion in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence, from about $6.02 billion in 2006. Analysts suggest the only reason the network was able to eke out an 8.3% gain in 2008—ad revenue rose to about $5.39 billion—was because of its high-rated telecast of the Summer Olympics from Beijing.
At the same time, the network has gotten a boost from its broadcasts of NFL games on Sunday evenings.
“They’re in the most obvious ‘no-win’ situation of the broadcast networks. … They needed to do something to rebuild their franchise, and right now Jay Leno has to be the tentpole,” said Don Seaman, VP and director of communications analysis at Havas’ MPG. “They may have to endure being seen as the ‘late night’ network for a while until they produce another breakout, sustainable hit. The ‘Biggest Loser’ franchise is not the long-term solution,” he said.
Mr. Silverman knows marketers will be even more demanding this year. “Everyone in America is looking for a deal right now, and we know our clients are going to be looking for maximum flexibility and price opportunity in the same way we’re having the conversation with everyone who supplies us,” he said.
NBC expects an upfront that is “longer than normal” and one that involves “a series of triangulated negotiations,” Mr. Silverman said.
Many buyers expect ratings for Mr. Leno’s new program to be substantially lower than those of a more traditional 10 p.m. scripted network drama; one buyer wonders if advertisers will be willing to pay primetime rates for a show that may not match the numbers from dramas airing on rivals CBS and ABC.
To counter that, Mr. Silverman suggested NBC is willing to get creative. “What if we did a live commercial with you in the show and Jay actually talking about your product—and then you had the commercial playing? Because that to me is worth a lot higher CPM than just buying an ad in a soap opera,” he said.

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