Upfront 2010

Before Upfront, NBC Boasts of Its Upscale Viewership

With Green Light to J.J. Abrams' 'Undercovers,' Renewal of 'Marriage Ref,' Focus on Big Earners Marks Shift

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC is acting like its 1999. The Peacock network has been quietly offering advertisers and viewers a peek at a small part of next fall's programming lineup with announcements that liken its slate to the days when "Frasier" and "Friends" dotted its airwaves and it was an easy place for marketers to target high-income consumers.

'Undercovers' Credit: NBC
NBC said yesterday it had given the nod to "Undercovers," a much-anticipated spy drama from "Lost" producer J.J. Abrams. A big, glitzy production marks a different stance from a network that last year touted its decision to run comedian Jay Leno five times a week as a smart move because it would cut costs even as it brought in a smaller audience at 10 p.m.

Picking up "Undercovers" comes after NBC said it would renew "The Marriage Ref," a critically derided reality program produced by comedian Jerry Seinfeld (who represents another link to the network's gloried past). One reason for the renewal? NBC, in a news release, said the show has "consistently over-delivered in key upscale demos, currently ranking in the top 10 among all prime-time network series in its concentration of homes with [$100,000-plus] incomes in its adult 18-49 audience." NBC likewise said in April it would renew the fledgling drama "Parenthood," which it called "one of the most upscale series on prime-time broadcast television, ranking in the top 10 in terms of the concentration of homes with incomes of $100,000 or more in its adult 18-49 audience."

It's not surprising to hear any TV network crow about the shows it intends to serve up in the fall. But it's interesting to hear NBC once again talk openly about reaching upscale viewers and, what's more, trying to entertain. For the last few seasons, network brass has focused instead on trying to manage a broadcast network as audiences for its regular fare erode and move to other video-viewing opportunities. Since the announcement that Comcast Corp. would take a majority stake in NBC Universal, however, executives have begun to talk about investment in programming while Comcast has sounded a note of support for the broadcast network and its stations.

NBC has a long tradition of securing premiums from advertisers to reach well-heeled viewers who tuned in for such programs as "The West Wing," "ER," even "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," an Aaron Sorkin drama centered on the TV industry that stalled in its first season on the air. Some of the network's most costly programs from an advertising standpoint, "30 Rock" and "The Office," aren't the most-viewed shows on broadcast TV, but lure in an upscale audience that advertisers like to reach and influence.

Whether NBC's positioning tweak will bring better ad interest remains to be seen. Ad buyers are hoping the network sees a turn in fortunes. "A network that performs better puts more [ratings points] into the marketplace and gives me a little more choice when I am in the marketplace," said Andrew Donchin, director of investment at Aegis Group's Carat.

Like its broadcast rivals, NBC is expected to secure more commitments in the coming upfront market than it did last year. A recent report from Barclays Capital projected NBC will secure $1.65 billion in ad commitments, up 12.8% from the $1.46 billion it secured in 2009, but not enough to beat the $1.85 billion it attracted in 2008.

NBC may have more glitzy fare in store, including a romance-anthology program called "Love Bites" that is in development and has been promoted to ad buyers. Even so, the network has also renewed other reality programs such as "Minute to Win It" -- a clear sign that a broadcast outlet still has to appeal to the widest swath of viewers possible.

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