Buyers are concerned not only about the season's early start, but the small number of new shows and potential for the vital Thursday night lineup to lose its "must-see" status.
One major agency buyer said there was concern about erosion at all networks but particularly NBC, which provides advertisers with upscale young audiences in large numbers. According to Nielsen Media Research, the six main broadcast networks were down in the same period last year (May 27-Aug. 1) by three share points in households, 36 vs. 39 with ratings falling from 21.3 to 19.6. For the same period, NBC was down in 18-to-49-year-olds from a 10 to an 8 share, and from a 3 to a 2.5 rating.
The performance of the second season of the "The Apprentice" is key to NBC's 2004-2005 schedule. "There are definitely a lot of what ifs, because they're losing one of their strongest shows in `Friends.' The success they'll have this year really depends on how `The Apprentice 2' does," said Ed Gentner, senior VP-group director of national broadcast at MediaVest, New York, part of Publicis Groupe. "Everyone expects some falloff with `Joey.' "
Mr. Gentner, one of many buyers who've collectively committed almost $3 billion to NBC this year, said he was confident NBC would have other shows in the pipeline if anything falters. "The Office," a comedic drama about cubicle life, is a potential Thursday replacement.
Stacey Lynn Koerner, exec VP-director global research at Initiative Media, part of Interpublic Group of Cos. said she was confident NBC would perform well, but said Fox's youth-oriented "The O.C.," set to air opposite "Joey," could provide an upset.
NBC is leaving nothing to chance, tapping a promotional war chest during the Olympics, which begin Aug. 13. It will use all the firepower of its cable assets, which include news networks CNBC and MSNBC, as well as Bravo, USA and Sci-Fi Channel. Its Web properties will also be employed to entice viewers into the fall lineup.
John Miller, co-president of The Agency, NBC's in-house marketing unit, said"The Olympics is a huge opportunity to build awareness and we're in good shape." One of NBC's more innovative marketing tactics is to use Olympic boxing coverage on cable siblings CNBC and MSNBC to promote Mark Burnett's reality boxing competition "The Contender."
As for "The Apprentice 2," Mr. Miller said, "We will not disappoint. There will be plenty of Omarosas, Kwames and Bills," he said, referring to standout contestants from season one. The show will gain added bounce from Universal Home Video, which will promote the DVD release of the first season during the Olympics.
Mr. Miller said it was difficult to detail the amount of promotional airtime NBC had committed. But he estimated about half the promo spots will be dedicated to new shows, such as "LAX, "Joey" and "Father of the Pride."
While the Olympics will attract more viewers than regular summer programming, NBC executives privately admit they don't expect the Games to match levels of the 2000 Sydney Olympics for a number of reasons. The network expects an average 13 share, based on such factors as broadcast viewership erosion, channel proliferation and an early start date.