In an odd walk-through experience that extended through the General Electric division's Manhattan-based NBC Store into a tent surrounding the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Plaza, NBC Universal led media buyers, reporters and advertisers on an eye-popping journey -- well, a short trip -- across its entertainment holdings. American Gladiators cajoled onlookers to join them on a small stage. CNBC "Money Honey" Maria Bartiromo interviewed seemingly important guests while John Madden signed footballs, and guests were invited to watch NBC Universal movie trailers in a high-definition theater. All the while, big flat-screen TVs flashed enough images in rapid-fire motion to conjure seizures in even the most cynical ad buyers.
It's no wonder Conan O'Brien, in remarks made afterward, called the whole shebang "the epilepsy hut."
Strobe-light effects aside, NBC has a lot riding on its "Experience" idea, as does the rest of the TV industry. With viewing levels crimped by the recent writers strike and with more consumers getting entertainment and information from emerging digital sources, traditional entertainment outlets are trying to demonstrate to advertisers that they're on top of new trends. NBC Universal's presentation kicks off the annual "upfront week" that marks the start of haggling between marketers and TV networks for between $8.5 billion and $9.5 billion of ad commitments for coming prime-time programming.
Since NBC Universal has announced the prime-time schedule for its flagship broadcast and cable networks in recent weeks, it used this opportunity to show advertisers how they might latch on to its entertainment properties across a wide variety of media venues: an association with "Heroes" here, a dip into mobile advertising there. You get the idea.
Strangely absent from the affair was any attempt at a hard sell. At no point during the presentation were attendees given any sort of overt sales pitch, although several NBC Universal ad-sales executives were spotted in the halls and at a party afterward. Even Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal president-CEO -- a normally effusive, talkative fellow -- limited his public remarks during the event.
Media buyers didn't seem overly impressed by NBC's effort -- the lack of a clear take-away relating to all the different media displayed was puzzling to some. Even so, buyers applauded the effort to change the networks' upfront presentations, which typically consist of TV executives trotting out clips and fresh-faced actors in an effort to get advertisers excited about new fall programs.
"I think they're looking for a forum that's commensurate with the de-emphasis of the upfront," said Steve Calder, chief media officer at MediaHub, part of Interpublic Group od Cos.' Mullen. One branded-entertainment executive felt NBC should get a few nods for recognizing the industry is in flux and a new upfront model is emerging.
"They should be given credit because at least they did something different," said Brian Terkelsen, an exec VP at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest who oversees entertainment marketing.
'InFront' approach bears fruit
Meanwhile, NBC's strategy of revealing its programming ahead of the upfront week has paid off in a branded-entertainment deal. NBC and General Motors have struck a deal that makes GM the exclusive automotive integration partner for NBC's new fall drama starring Christian Slater, "My Own Worst Enemy." The Monday-evening show will feature two different GM cars -- one for each of the personalities that Mr. Slater's character contains. The deal came out of NBC's April "InFront" meetings, where the company presented a full 65-week programming schedule six weeks before the traditional upfront presentations.
In addition to the on-air integration, the agreement includes ads on TV and ads on NBC Universal digital and out-of-home properties. The two parties said the deal is "the centerpiece of a larger strategic partnership between the two companies for the 2008/09 programming season involving some of NBC's premier entertainment and late-night properties."