NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC placed a new emphasis on scripted entertainment today as the General Electric broadcast network offered marketers and media buyers a peek at its lineup for the coming season, the first volley in what is likely to be an extended "upfront" ad-sales season during a severe recession. NBC also spent much of its time trying to drum up support for its new five-day-a-week Jay Leno program.
"We need to find ways to deliver your messages and at the same time find consumers for our programs," said Ben Silverman, co-chairman, NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. Mike Pilot, president-sales and marketing, NBC Universal, said the network has created more than "100 customized ad projects" over the last two seasons, adding that the network is "just getting started with this."
Criticized by ad buyers in recent years for its lack of success in launching new scripted fare, NBC is taking five of its prime-time hours out of consideration with its new "Jay Leno Show," featuring the longtime host of its late-night "Tonight Show." While buyers don't expect the program to garner the same ratings a scripted drama would, NBC is countering by making Mr. Leno more available for specialized marketing programs. Mr. Leno is "advertiser friendly," said Mr. Pilot. "He's not afraid to experiment with live commercials and with sponsorships."
At the same time, the network has prepared a schedule that looks to have a greater concentration of scripted programming between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. NBC said that it would bring back "Heroes," "Law & Order: SVU," "Parks & Recreation," "Southland," "30 Rock," "The Office," "The Biggest Loser," "Friday Night Lights" and a series of half-hour "Weekend Updates" from "Saturday Night Live" shown during prime time. Three new reality shows -- Jerry Seinfeld's "The Marriage Ref," "Breakthough With Tony Robbins" and "Who Do You Think You Are?" -- have also been picked up as series.
NBC promised an audacious slate of original dramas and comedies. "Parenthood" is based on the Ron Howard film from 1989 and features actors Maura Tierney, Peter Krause, Craig T. Nelson, Dax Shephard, Monica Potter and Bonnie Bedelia. "Trauma" centers on a group of San Francisco paramedics and rescue-unit workers; NBC has earmarked money for the series so that spectacular disaster scenes can be staged throughout, not just in the pilot, said Angela Bromstad, president of prime-time entertainment, NBC and Universal Media Studios. "Mercy" looks at the lives of three very different nurses, and stars Taylor Schilling as a troubled female protagonist not seen, perhaps, since Juliana Margulies played hard-nosed Elizabeth Canterbury in Fox's 2008 drama "Canterbury's Law."
"Community" features Joel McHale and Chevy Chase in an oddball look at a group of diverse students at a community college. "100 Questions" tries to spark the spirit of "Friends" and CBS's "The Ex List" by following one woman's efforts to find Mr. Right. Finally, the ambitious "Day One," slated to launch after the 2010 Winter Olympics, chronicles a small band of survivors trying to rebuild society after a massive attack on Earth.
NBC declined to offer a firm schedule for its new programs, except to say that "Heroes" would still appear on Monday nights. "Biggest Loser" is likely on Tuesdays, "Law & Order: SVU" is likely for Wednesdays, and comedies are slated for Thursdays. Some shows will not appear until the second half of the season, executives said. The network will unveil a more definitive look at its schedule May 19 during an evening comedy showcase for advertisers.
Changes to other shows
Some programs could come back in slightly nontraditional format, executives said. Mr. Silverman acknowledged that "Medium," "Chuck," "My Name is Earl" and the venerable "Law & Order" were all under consideration and might come back if NBC could work out new arrangements with the studios that produced them. Meanwhile, "Law & Order: SVU" could well return without its principal actors, Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, both of whom are in negotiations over payments. "The show is coming back. We hope they come back with it," said Marc Graboff, co-chairman, NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. "The show is coming back, with or without them."
In a sign of new ways advertisers might sponsor programs, Mr. Silverman suggested in remarks made after the presentation that he is looking to integrate marketers into shows as a way of cutting costs. "We were literally able to bring ['Friday Night Lights'] back because of our relationships with Applebee's and General Motors," Mr. Silverman said. In order for "Chuck" to return next season, it could need an integrated advertiser to help shoulder the show's costs. Might that be Subway? The sandwich chain is already a season-length sponsor of NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and has placed products in "Chuck."
"They're equally excited about that show. They've been an innovative advertiser for us," Mr. Silverman said, adding, "I can't imagine why they wouldn't want" to sponsor a new season of "Chuck."
When it comes to TV-ad spending this year, however, several ad buyers and Wall Street analysts believe sponsorships of all kinds could be crimped. Despite the turbulent economy and advertisers' recent efforts to cut back on last year's upfront commitments, Mr. Pilot said the second-quarter had been "much healthier than we had anticipated" in terms of purchases made in the so-called scatter market, when advertisers buy time in an as-need basis.
A warning to advertisers
Both he and Marianne Gambelli, president, NBC Universal Network Ad Sales, suggested the upfront would be "unpredictable," but that clients who didn't secure some ad inventory could risk a spike in the cost of scatter as the economy began to improve later in the year and in 2010. Mr. Pilot said advertisers are still spending slowly and much later than usual, but he felt they had begun to "lean forward." He said domestic automakers had begun to spend in the second quarter, and movie studios had been strong. But he also noted that financial-services advertisers and pharmaceutical marketers had been "tough" in terms of spending.
Executives from the network, which lags its rivals in terms of ratings, made the presentation as part of its second "infront" effort, in which it tries to start talks with advertisers much earlier than the mid-May upfront sessions. Those presentations are meant to sell 75% to 80% of ad inventory for the coming season, but NBC executives have been trying to change the system with earlier talks and making offers to tailor ads to particular pieces of entertainment.
NBC's preview of its new programming could also serve as a peek at how the broadcast-TV business is evolving as the economy and technology wreak havoc on the medium in its traditional form. With audiences drifting to digital media and advertisers splitting their ad spend to follow them, tying marketers into specific ad plays could serve not only to deepen relationships with them but also as a means to sharing the cost of individual TV series. "The world is changing," said Mr. Silverman, and TV programming must change with it.