Welcome to NBC's new fall season, one in which the former prime-time powerhouse finds itself in the dreary cellar most recently occupied by ABC-which is itself enjoying a turnaround that proves how fine the line is between success and failure for the big broadcast networks.
On the heels of a disappointing 2004-2005 season and an upfront battering, NBC is still on the slide. In the first three weeks, ratings for General Electric's network fell 13.2% in the 18-to-49 demographic desired by advertisers, as the median age of its viewers edged closer to 50.
Buyers are typically reserved in their comments in the interest of preserving long-term relationships with broadcast sellers as leverage shifts back and forth. But there's a certain gleefulness seeping into their conversations as the network that dominated prime-time ratings for so long continues to come up vulnerable.
Already there are calls for additional inventory to meet ratings guarantees. Since there's no scarcity of airtime in the fourth quarter given the less-than-robust market, no panic is setting in yet. But there's not much optimism, either. Said one senior agency buyer: "There seems to be no reason [to expect] any turnaround."
Several buyers singled out NBC Universal TV Group President Jeff Zucker for criticism. "There's always a difference between what Jeff Zucker thinks the shows will deliver and what the sales department thinks," said Jon Mandel, chairman-chief global buying officer, MediaCom. "Thank God the sales department doesn't have to say `my baby isn't ugly.' They'll be in a make-good situation, but they know that and they planned for that."
"The story may not be as bad by end of the season, but they need good, strong, unique program development," said another senior buyer. "They haven't taken the risk over the past four years. That issue rests on the shoulders of Jeff Zucker. I don't know how anyone can blame it on anyone else but him."
Mr. Zucker was the target of a story in the new issue of Radar magazine that indicated his job is on the line, an article that prompted a denial and statement of support from GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt.
NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly is also in a tough spot, and buyers said he has to confront programming issues on Thursday and Wednesday nights, in particular.
"The Apprentice" is suffering greater viewer burnout than expected. The Donald Trump-helmed boardroom reality drama from Mark Burnett Productions has dropped out of the top 10 among the 18-to-49-year-old crowd, falling to No. 19 for week three. The show drew only a 4.5 rating and 5.8 million viewers in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic.
Decade-old schedule stalwart "ER" was defeated for the first time in the 18-49 demographic in week three by CBS's "Without a Trace." Even Monday nights' "CSI: Miami" on CBS pulled a better number with that demographic.
Wednesdays have also become worrisome with Martha Stewart's "The Apprentice: Martha" pulling smaller numbers than expected, and having to contend with ABC's "Lost," which tops 11.9 million viewers in the 18-49 category. Still, NBC looks almost certain to stick with it for its full run, buyers said.
There are some bright spots. NBC's "My Name is Earl" is the top network sitcom of the new season among 18-to-49-year olds and has helped NBC own Tuesday nights, although the show that follows it, "The Office," is struggling to hold its big-lead in audience.
"Over the three weeks, 13% is probably not where they protected people down to," said yet another buyer. "People will need [make goods] as of today. But I don't think they're in crisis mode."
NBC said only that it is writing deals with advertisers for the fourth quarter and declined to comment on make goods.
Contributing: Abbey Klaassen