Buyers applaud: NBC season shift redefines TV rules

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In a move that could signal a major shift in the TV sales calendar, NBC is bucking the age-old practice of launching the fall season in late September, moving up a month to expose Olympics viewers to its new programming slate.

"We have the opportunity to take advantage of the Olympics," said Jeff Zucker, president, NBC Entertainment, News and Cable. "I'm not going to say that the fall TV season as we know it is dead, but we'd be foolish to wait three weeks after the Olympics to launch new shows and lose that momentum."

Media agency executives last week applauded NBC's move and suggested that it could chip away at the other rigid and dated TV tradition: the spring upfront marketplace.

"I like the idea a lot," said Roger Schaffner, president-CEO of independent media shop Palisades Media, Los Angeles. "I liked it when Fox was premiering shows earlier. Why should the third quarter just be reruns?"

Mr. Schaffner pointed out that the third quarter is often where make-goods are made available after prime-time shows sold in the upfront don't hit their guaranteed audience numbers. But because of the reruns, audience numbers are down in the third quarter and the make-goods are not adequate compensation.

"That's all caused by the upfront," said Mr. Schaffner. "In a perfect world, everything should be bought in scatter. At the upfront, you're rolling the dice. It's a gamble."

52 weeks

Mr. Zucker, speaking at the twice-annual convention of TV critics in Los Angeles last week, said he is looking to a 52-week-a-year scheduling model, with periods outside the February, May and November sweeps taking on added importance.

The broadcast networks have been struggling, and all six saw decreases in the fall in their viewing levels, particularly among the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic. NBC dropped 9% in that demo.

NBC will begin rolling out its new season programming immediately after the Olympics coverage ends on Aug. 29.

Mr. Zucker said he foresees a time when sweeps are "less and less important," as audience measurements like local people meters become more vital.

other networks

News Corp.'s Fox already has taken the year-round scheduling approach, launching shows in the summer and nurturing them through to fall, as in the case of "The O.C."

Executives from Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, speaking at the same critics' convention, said they are experimenting more with short-run series and will end their season earlier in spring, using specials and event programming to punctuate the May sweeps. The network is looking to "the HBO model," which uses short bursts of all-original programming. The shorter runs require less of a commitment from audiences, they said.

ABC executives also said they will air original episodes of their comedies and dramas straight through the spring, instead of using repeats as place-holders. Those originals could wind up the season in April.

"It's a new and highly competitive era," said Susan Lyne, president, ABC Entertainment. "You lose too much ground with viewers" when you air repeats.

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