NBC's Plan to Fix Saturday Morning

West Coast President Marc Graboff on Debut of Qubo

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC may still be struggling to win back its prime-time crown, but that hasn't stopped the network from setting its sights on dominating a different daypart. On Sept. 9, NBC -- along with Telemundo, I Network, Scholastic Media, Classic Media/Big Idea and Corus Entertainment -- will launch a brand of kids programming, Qubo, for Saturday mornings.
Marc Graboff
Marc Graboff Credit: NBC

The weekend slot most recently played host to a three-hour block of educational Discovery Channel shows. The science-heavy, reality-based programming failed to click with its target age group -- pulling in one-third of the audience at competitors ABC and CBS. NBC let that partnership expire after four years.

Conceived in May, Qubo has been one of the largest new ventures for Marc Graboff, 50, since being named president of NBC Universal Television West Coast in January. A former lawyer, Mr. Graboff came to NBC in 2000 after serving as senior VP at CBS Entertainment for three years. He then became exec VP of NBC in November 2000, handling business-affairs duties for five years before his current promotion. Here he talks with MediaWorks about building a block of programming that satisfies kids, parents, critics and advertisers.

MediaWorks: Children's marketing has been hit pretty hard lately, with accusations of food marketers promoting foods that lead to obesity and retailers like Toys "R" Us in trouble. What marketing strategy are you going to employ with Qubo? What hasn't been exhausted yet?

Marc Graboff: It's a good question. I don't know what kinds of avenues haven't been exploited yet. The balance for us is making sure we're entertaining to kids. These are popular characters that they accept, that they identify with. They're also positive role models. [The "Veggie Tales" characters are] educational, yet we don't want to make it seem like we're serving them broccoli. It's not Broccoli TV, or else you're not going to get kids to watch. I can't say we have the magic answer to get kids to watch. With "Barney" or "The Wiggles," those are phenomena that happen to have positive values but I don't think they were planned to be.

MediaWorks: Who conceived the idea for Qubo?

Mr. Graboff: It was kind of a confluence of events. NBC's deal with Discovery Kids was coming to an end. We were looking at a number of different companies that approached us about buying the block, including Scholastic and Nelvana, who are now in partnership with us. And we thought, "Is there another strategic way to approach our Saturday morning block to meet FCC regulations? And can we combine that with something more strategic and savvy?"

At the same time, Brandon Burgess was over at ION [the I Network] and had approached us about doing something for kids. We really kind of started getting serious in the spring.

MediaWorks: What do you think went wrong with the Discovery lineup?

Mr. Graboff: Well, I think part of it was it's a matter of circulation. CBS has Nickelodeon, so obviously they had that brand going for them. ABC had a seven-day-a-week presence [with Disney]. We had NBC Saturday morning and Discovery Kids was not as deeply penetrated as it could have been. The function of the shows was maybe a little more reality-, science-, education-based. I think what we're doing with Qubo is a really good mix of values-oriented and educational and informative -- but entertaining as well, focusing on a younger audience.

MediaWorks: The majority of child viewers these days are turning to Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel on cable for their TV. Is Saturday-morning programming a dead zone for the major networks or is there still room for growth?

Mr. Graboff: There's room for growth. I don't think it's a dead zone, but it's not an island. It can no longer be the only place for children. Programming can't sustain on three hours a week. You have to have a seven-day-a-week presence in the minds of kids so they know what the brand is. But you can still be on Saturday mornings and have it be a nice beachhead for the rest of the week. Being on NBC, you already have a pretty big platform.

MediaWorks: How will you expand that platform?

Mr. Graboff: It remains to be seen. With other NBC programming, obviously the development there could cross over to NBC prime time, which would be great. One of the shows is the "Veggie Tales" franchise and coincidentally Universal Pictures is developing a feature film out of it. We're looking for there to be some real cross-platform opportunities -- theme parks, the opportunities could be endless. It's all going to boil down to programming.

MediaWorks: One advantage you have with Qubo is the established name "Veggie Tales" brings with it. Were you seeking name recognition with programming when you started out?

Mr. Graboff: That franchise was definitely part of the attractiveness of being in business with Classic Media. Every partner is bringing something to the table that's unique. It's like the Justice League of children's programming -- you have that guy with the super power and that guy with the super power. Scholastic has a tremendous brand name in literary retail space. NBC and ION have platforms and distribution systems. Everybody is coming together with the cliché that the whole is greater than sum of its parts.

MediaWorks: The lineup launches in two weeks and you're going to start a 24-hour digital-cable network for Qubo before the end of the year. Where do you see the Qubo brand going from here?

Mr. Graboff: We're still in the wait-and-see phase. The idea is to get the brand familiar in parents' minds and children's minds on analog channels and migrating to a digital channel, which is going to have to get some traction there with circulation. The sky's the limit if it catches on. The trick is, you think about how any niche brand has identified itself as a pillar of programming. Nickelodeon had all those Klasky-Csupo shows like "Ren & Stimpy," for example. There's always something that is the killer and sometimes it works out. We have to wait for that to happen.
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