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NBC to Give Early Taste of Fall Fare With 'Infront'

Will Woo Advertisers With More Scripted Programs, Customized Promotions

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- 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 network, which dominated the ratings for years on the strength of "Friends," "Seinfeld," Frasier," "Law & Order" and "ER," 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 nightly talk show hosted by longtime "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno at 10 p.m.

JAY LENO: With a nightly talk show at 10 p.m., NBC has fewer hours to program.
JAY LENO: With a nightly talk show at 10 p.m., NBC has fewer hours to program. Credit: NBC
The network hopes to start a new chapter today when it gives advertisers a taste of its coming fall schedule during a 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 "upfront" meetings in the hope of sparking earlier negotiations. NBC is likely to emphasize its commitment to creating customized promotions that tie in to specific programs.

'Surgically focused' scripted fare
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, 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." Even 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 from about $6.02 billion in 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Analysts said 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 highly rated telecast of the Olympics. 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 tent pole," said Don Seaman, VP-director of communications analysis at Havas's 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."

Deal or no deal?
Mr. Silverman knows that 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," he 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 wondered if advertisers will be willing to pay prime-time rates for a show that may not match the numbers of dramas airing on rivals CBS and ABC.

To counter that, Mr. Silverman said 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 [cost-per-thousand viewers] than just buying an ad in a soap opera," he said.

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