Just when some observers assumed NBC's longtime dominance at the top-eight of the last nine years-would be over, the Peacock Network struck fear in the hearts of competitors by pulling more tricks out of its programming and marketing hat last year.
"It's a fun story to say NBC is slipping," says Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment. "But at the end of the day, the combination of incredibly strong programming and incredibly strong marketing means that rumor of our death is greatly exaggerated."
a first for `friends'
The first trick for General Electric Co.'s NBC was higher-than-expected ratings for prime-time heavyweight "Friends," which entered its eighth season last year. "Friends" in 2001-02 had the honor-for the first time in this sitcom's history-of being the top-rated broadcast network show for the entire season.
"It's pretty rare for a show to improve like that," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, senior VP-director of broadcast research for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media North America, New York. Sup-porting the rumors that "Friends" will stay beyond this year, Ms. Koerner adds, "I'm not convinced this is `Friends' ` last year."
Many theories abound why "Friends" did so well, such as it being comfort food after the Sept. 11 tragedies. But Mr. Zucker counters: "If comfort food was the reason, then `Friends' wouldn't have been the only sitcom on network television whose ratings were up year to year. 'Friends' had a tremendous story line last year that sucked the whole country in."
"Friends" is a mother ship for NBC's entire lineup, helping the network post an industry-leading Nielsen Media Research 5.3 rating/14 share in the adults 18-49 segment. News Corp.'s Fox was a distant second at a 4.0/11.
NBC's second major trick of the year was higher-than-expected ratings for the Winter Olympics. NBC had promised a 16 rating but earned an average 19 for the Games.
Media executives give NBC credit in marketing the Olympics to a younger audience. It spent more than $150 million in promotions created by the in-house NBC Agency. NBC capitalized on the fact this Olympics included many more Gen X-type events. For instance, it ran a cinema trailer promoting the event before many young-skewing movies.
All this put NBC into the stratosphere when it came to national advertising for the 2002-03 season. NBC muscled $2.7 billion in the June upfront buying market, almost $800 million more than CBS. The key here for NBC is not just its potent 18-49 numbers but its highly valuable upscale viewership.
This upcoming season is a tougher fight. NBC has no Olympics and has been having a difficult time on Tuesday as ABC made headway with new family sitcoms. But the early weeks of the season still have NBC on top in the all-important 18-49 race. And it's made gains on Sunday with new dramas "American Dreams" and "Boomtown."
Another factor has kept costs in line, especially in launching new shows-only five this season and six last season for NBC. Keeping costs low also is the rule with reality shows. NBC doesn't have a big reality hit like CBS' "Survivor,"but it does have a smaller player in "Fear Factor."
"The fact is `Fear Factor' repeats and `Survivor' doesn't," says Mr. Zucker, referring to its ability to run well in reruns. " 'Fear Factor' does a five [rating] in the [adults 18-49] demo, where other [reality] shows do sevens and eights. But we repeat that five demo. It has a tremendous value."