NBC Uses Cable to Boost Audience for Fall Shows

Network Says Strategy Is Deliberate, Not a Reaction to Low Ratings

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NBC hopes that viewership will grow for 'Community' as more viewers find it.
NBC hopes that viewership will grow for 'Community' as more viewers find it. Credit: NBC
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Some new NBC fall programs have turned up on USA and Bravo, but there's a method behind the seeming mystery of why the Peacock network would run what are supposed to be big-audience-generating shows such as "Trauma," "Mercy" and "Community" in TV territory aimed deliberately at smaller crowds.

The cable appearances are part of a tactic NBC has used for the last handful of years, said Mitch Metcalf, exec VP-program planning and scheduling, NBC Universal. "We are trying to get as much exposure to our new shows as possible," he said, and so the NBC broadcast network will work with its cable siblings to "try and match those shows demographically to their channels' audiences." The hope is that "we can convert some of those viewers to come back to NBC if they like the series," he added.

Of course, the tactic also winks at an emerging TV-industry dynamic: To build the truly mass audiences that advertisers crave, TV networks need to string together groups of niches, all of whom may not choose to engage with a particular program at a proscribed time and date. As such, TV executives and media-industry analysts anticipate a time when networks stream their content across a number of different venues to amass viewers along the way.

Mr. Metcalf said the cable tactic has worked in the past, helping to build viewers between the advertiser-coveted ages of 18 to 49, sometimes by double-digit percentage ranges.

NBC can certainly use the boost: Its new dramas are not garnering audiences on par with new launches from CBS's "NCIS:LA" or "The Good Wife," and Fox's new drama "Glee" has been adding viewers week to week.

"Mercy" opened to an overall audience of 8.4 million on NBC and an 18-49 audience of 3 million, according to Nielsen Co. For the week ended Oct. 4, the nursing drama captured an overall audience of 7.4 million and an 18-49 audience of 2.7 million, respectively. The launch of "Trauma," meanwhile, started out with an overall audience of 6.7 million and an 18-49 audience of 2.9 million, then fell to 5.4 million and 2.3 million the following week.

The cable audiences are significantly smaller. Audiences for two different airings of "Trauma" on cable totaled 926,000 and 841,000, while audiences for two different airings of "Mercy" came to 804,000 and 701,000, Nielsen said.

"There's no getting around that it's been a disappointing season for them" so far, said John Spiropoulos, senior VP-director of marketplace analytics at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest. "So they need a little bit of work to really keep the audiences."

But NBC's strategy is deliberate, said Mr. Metcalf, not done in knee-jerk fashion. "We planned this over the summer. It's not in response to on-air performance or in anticipation of one show not going well," he said. "We get into discussions with the cable networks in late summer and lock in the time periods before the premieres even happen."

He said the network is "optimistic" about the future of "Community," which moves to an 8 p.m. time slot on Thursday to make room for the debut of "30 Rock." The hope is that viewership will grow for the program as more viewers find it. "Mercy" is also viewed as a potentially viable property that the "female-viewing audience will really connect with," he said. "Trauma" is "in an incredibly tough time period. It's facing some strong competition in all demographics and I think we want to see the numbers stabilize."

If NBC were to run the new shows on cable as well as broadcast all season, it would likely prove confusing and fracture the crowd for each show across multiple media outlets. The feat would also likely cost more money, as networks are only allowed to broadcast single episodes so many times before additional fees kick in. But most networks can mount extra airings of early-run episodes for promotional purposes without having to pay added fees to the studios that created them, and a limited run of extra airings can drive viewers to the main source of the program.

TV executives realize that there is a vast audience for programming, said Mr. Metcalf, but need to be more aggressive in roping them in. Audience levels across all of TV remain strong, he said, but "in just about every time period, it is overwhelmed with choice." So media companies need to use all their holdings -- broadcast, cable, online and mobile -- to build a crowd. "We can't run away from these alternate forms of delivery," he said.

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