Of all the television networks presenting their fall schedules to advertisers this week, none will be watched more closely than NBC.
NBC is suffering through a humbling season and will likely tumble to fourth in the network popularity standings for the first time. Among the youthful demographic it considers most important, fourth place is a virtual certainty.
These days NBC Universal Television chief Jeff Zucker is feeling a kinship to Joe Torre of the New York Yankees, another manager not accustomed to fourth place.
“That’s why the Yankees are a front-page story in The New York Times when they are having a bad season,” Zucker said. “It’s the same thing with NBC.”
After losing “Friends” and “Frasier,” NBC knew this would be a transition year. First-place CBS’ across-the-board strength, ABC’s surprising rebound and the continued domination of Fox’s “American Idol” only accented the troubles.
NBC’s viewership has dropped 11 percent this year, according to Nielsen Media Research. The decline is 16 percent with viewers aged 18 to 49, while CBS, ABC and Fox are all up in that demographic. Ratings among those young viewers is what NBC uses to set advertising prices.
“Basically, they didn’t have a well-defined strategy going in and they are living on their past glories,” said Shari Anne Brill, a television analyst for advertising buyers Carat USA.
“It was almost like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ When you looked behind the curtain, there was nothing there.”
Most damaging is NBC’s decline on Thursdays, a night it has dominated through two decades of must-see TV from “The Cosby Show” to “Friends.”
The “Friends” audience hasn’t embraced “Joey,” “Will & Grace” is showing its age and “The Apprentice” is no longer a sensation. While “ER” has shown remarkable stamina, each Thursday show now loses to CBS.
NBC had a modest midseason hit this year with “Medium,” but a poor track record in developing new hits means its creative team must overcome some industry skepticism.
Today, onstage at Radio City Music Hall, NBC executives will reveal which new shows will get the green light for next fall.
A handful have received some positive word-of-mouth: “E-Ring,” a drama set at the Pentagon with Dennis Hopper and Benjamin Bratt; “Early Bird,” a comedy from a former writer for David Letterman, about a 27-year-old man who briefly lives in a retirement community; and “NoTORIous,” starring Tori Spelling in a role that mimics Larry David in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Zucker said he’s looking to strike a balance between seeding for the future and programs that might offer an immediate ratings jolt.
The strength of NBC’s prime-time schedule is at 10 p.m., with dramas “Law & Order,” “Medium,” “ER” and “Law & Order: SVU.” Although some are aging, these shows are important to affiliates because they funnel viewers into the local news at 11 p.m. This ultimately helps Jay Leno and the “Today” show, too.
NBC’s programs also tend to draw a wealthier audience than at other networks, for which advertisers will pay a premium to reach.
Viewers still have a positive impression of NBC as a brand, according to the advertising firm Young & Rubicam, which studies consumer perceptions. NBC scores higher than ABC and CBS and is second only to Fox, which has a well-defined image as a risk-taker, said Tom Thornton, a Y&R executive.
The surveys have tracked some confusion and concern about where NBC is going, however.
“They probably have built up so much good will over the last 10 or 15 years because of their Thursday night lineup and the fact that they were on top for so long,” Thornton said. “The overall good feeling doesn’t go away just because ABC has had a couple of hits.”
Still, advertising executives are waiting to see some sign of a turnaround.
“They want to hear they have a real vision for programming, that there are some solid show runners, or producers with great programming ideas,” said Jack Myers, founder of the Myers Report, an influential industry newsletter.
There’s a lot riding on what NBC says today. The schedule announcements are known as “upfronts” in the industry, because based on what they hear, Madison Avenue executives will decide over the next month where to spend billions of dollars in advertising for next fall.
NBC has taken in more money during this buying frenzy than any other network for many years. Even though CBS has been the most popular network lately, NBC’s strength among 18- to 49-year-olds has kept it on top in the standings that really matter.
A fourth-place ratings finish puts that record at risk. Some industry experts believe this is the year NBC can be toppled; others think a price structure set higher than its rivals because of past success will keep NBC on top.
“If anything, there’s a sense that this is a very cyclical business and it’s NBC’s time,” Myers said. “That’s why advertisers will not be quick to desert them.”
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