Combined NBC Universal poised to take on giants

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Amid the hysteria over the creation of the NBC Universal media colossus last year, the fate of the company's merged syndication operation took a back seat to bigger-picture discussions about content libraries and such. But nine months post-merger and a few months before TV's upfront selling period kicks off, NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution President Barry Wallach believes his unit is on the cusp of becoming one of the syndication world's leanest and most distinct entities.

"It's kind of like changing a tire on an 18-wheeler going down the highway," he quips. "You don't get a chance to stop and do everything at once."

On the ad-sales side, for instance, the MGM/NBC Media Sales Group joint venture had to be dissolved before Universal marketing minions could even enter the picture.

"If you look at it now from the 40,000-foot perspective, it's the right mix of cultures and people and systems. I don't want to say that it was easy-maybe `seamless' is the right word," Mr. Wallach says of the splicing of NBC Enterprises and Universal Television Distribution. Before taking the top syndication job at NBC Universal, he was exec VP at NBC Enterprises.


It goes without saying that the NBC Universal syndication slate is considerably more diverse than before. "Starting Over" and "The Jane Pauley Show" appeal to, respectively, younger and slightly older women. "Blind Date" skews young and male, while "Maury" hits a more mature audience; "Access Hollywood" boasts a male/female mix in the 18-49 age bracket.

"The breadth of the new organization is much larger, and our assets are more complementary than they were," Mr. Wallach says. "Even with our talk shows, some are geared more toward traditional network affiliates and some are geared more to Fox and WB. [With] the weekend shows [like `The Chris Matthews Show' and `The Wall Street Journal Report With Maria Bartiromo'], you don't see a lot of that type of product in syndication. For advertisers, it's a nice alternative to put dollars into that arena."

While rival syndication giants have little to say, either on or off the record, about NBC Universal's offerings, media buyers are quick to assess the merged operation. They uniformly laud the company's behind-the-scenes efforts, reporting no issues with billing and traffic systems. When it comes to the overall effect the unification has on advertisers, opinions vary.

Donna Speciale, president-U.S. broadcast at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest, New York, believes the deal allows NBC to better compete with the Viacoms, Disneys and Time Warners of the world, and benefits will be felt by marketers before too long. "There's now another place where we can go to and find a way to engage the consumer in different areas-studios, theme parks," she says.

Ms. Speciale and her peers agree with Mr. Wallach's contention about the complementary nature of the company's content. "There's more variety on the shelves, so to speak," says Bill Carroll, VP-director of programming at Katz Television Group. "NBC has always had programming toward traditional affiliates-`Jane Pauley,' `Starting Over'-and Universal has been a significant supplier to" independents.

Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat North America, puts it succinctly: "It gives NBC parity with the other big guys."

"With more product and greater diversity, they can put better packages together," says Lyle Schwartz, managing partner-research and marketplace analysis at WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia. But Ms. Speciale cautions this newfound expansiveness could have a negative effect: "They now have more properties that we may not want to purchase in volume."

Media buyers seem eager to explore what they expect to be a wealth of new product-integration possibilities. "I think we're all expecting the opportunity for some larger-platform deals," says Mr. Schwartz. Ms. Speciale is encouraged many of these discussions have already started. "The only way these [deals] become successful is if you do them early," she says.

Mr. Wallach has obviously invested more than a few minutes of thought into integration possibilities. He points to "Starting Over," where such activity has already taken place, as a program that could distinguish NBC Universal's daytime offerings from its rivals'. A reality soap opera of sorts, the in-house setting affords marketers any number of relatively unobtrusive integration opportunities. "You don't see a lot of that in syndication," he says.

The media community remains keen to learn what NBC Universal has in store at this spring's annual upfront market. What Ray Warren, managing director of Omnicom Group's OMD USA, would like to see is "more talk about how they work with their station affiliates. Nobody is using their assets as well as they could in syndication, so I'm curious how that will be addressed." He also points to a need for better research offerings from the company.


Carat's Ms. Brill hopes NBC Universal might attempt to raise the bar for originally produced syndicated content. "The off-net pipeline is drying up," she says. "They could put original productions together-not just talk shows but maybe sci-fi or even comedy. That would be an incredible competitive advantage."

Mr. Wallach anticipates that Martha Stewart-returning to syndication next fall via NBC Universal-will be stronger than ever. He also remains especially bullish on the future growth of the company's entertainment offerings. "Access Hollywood" garnered a 2.6 household rating from Nielsen Media Research during last November's sweeps period, considered a strong performance in syndication. As for daytime, Mr. Wallach believes NBC Universal can lure more marketers to midday.

"There are lots of opportunities," he stresses. "[Daytime] may have gotten harder because of fragmentation, but there's still a tremendous amount of rating points there for the taking."

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