VIEWPOINT: IS NBC STILL KING OF CASTLE?; CHANGE AGENT

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IS NBC STILL KING OF CASTLE?

For nearly 20 years, NBC has been remarkably consistent in winning Thursday nights, despite the loss of major hits that once anchored its Thursday lineup (think of "Cheers," "Hill Street Blues" and "The Cosby Show"). And it raked in billions of well-deserved ad dollars for its success.

Unlike past series departures, however, the loss of "Seinfeld" at the end of the 1997-98 season comes at an unusually sensitive time for TV's leading network.

The series' retirement spotlights an issue that's been bubbling for a while: Just how small can prime-time audiences get and still allow the broadcast networks to command premium prices as the only efficient mass medium?

Last month at the PaineWebber Media Conference, NBC President-CEO Robert Wright was blunt about it: Yes, audiences are fragmented and advertisers have to settle for some ratings slippage. But broadcast network TV, he argued, is still the best deal around, and prices will keep going up despite the shrinking audience numbers.

Of course, that was said before Jerry Seinfeld decided to call it quits. In a world where computers, videotapes, video discs, cable and satellite TV compete for attention with network broadcast TV every minute, "Seinfeld" was one of the few sure-fire ways to break through all the clutter.

Advertisers paid a premium for the modern-day scarcity of a "Seinfeld"-size audience. The show has been the most expensive buy on TV for the past four seasons (reaching an average unit rate of $575,000 per :30 this season, as estimated in Advertising Age's Fall Prime-Time Pricing Survey). NBC has hundreds of millions of dollars now at stake in the "Seinfeld" time slot, and even more on maintaining the golden halo the "Seinfeld" ratings cast over the network's performance.

Master of its domain for a long time, NBC has told the advertising community it should expect to continue paying more-despite declining audience shares.

Without "Seinfeld" in the lineup, it will be interesting to see what advertisers tell NBC on Thursday nights next season.

CHANGE AGENT

Esther peterson was brought to the White House as consumer adviser to President Lyndon Johnson when consumerism took hold as an issue in the Washington of the 1960s. And thus began a remarkable effort to change the way marketers dealt with their customers. With her death at age 91 last month, the marketing community owes her its respect-and even its thanks.

Ms. Peterson helped bridge the distrust and hostility that divided business leaders and consumerists of the time. Whether in government, or as a pioneering VP of "consumer affairs" at Giant Foods, Washington's largest supermarket chain, she showed a generation of skeptical marketers that consumers responded to programs meant to help them be better shoppers-programs such as unit pricing, which made picking the best values easier, or nutrition disclosures and understandable freshness dating.

She also demonstrated that smart marketing programs that educated consumers about using these and other new shopping aids built customer loyalty.

While titles vary, most major marketers today employ consumer affairs professionals to help their company stand out as customer-friendly. That Ms. Peterson's lessons have taken such firm hold in business says a lot about her impact. And it also says something good about the marketers that came to see the wisdom in what she taught.

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