NBC Has No Plans to Be Portal or Ad Agency

VIDEO: Digital Chief Beth Comstock at Media Mavens Awards

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC is not trying to be a portal. That was the word the company's digital chief, Beth Comstock, gave advertisers yesterday afternoon at Advertising Age's Media Mavens award luncheon, where Ad Age Associate Publisher Scott Donaton grilled her on NBC's online ambitions, whether the network was infringing on agency territory with a new plan to help develop viral videos for marketers and if she could envision a pay model for broadcast TV.

Not a portal
"I don't think NBC is a portal," Ms. Comstock said before adding: "It depends on the definition -- if it's an aggregation of eyeballs, then yes." She reported millions of people have flocked to NBC.com to watch shows such as "Heroes" and "30 Rock" and that the traffic caught them by surprise. Still, she said, "at the end of the day we're not going to be Yahoo." While people are never going to come to NBC for everything, she said, neither would Yahoo be able to create the content NBC has.

Ms. Comstock, the former chief marketing officer at General Electric Co., which owns NBC Universal, became NBCU's president-digital media and market development a year ago. She sees NBC as a filter with a certain sensibility and a show such as "The Office" as a brand. "Could 'The Office' be 'The Office' without NBC? Maybe," she said. But she likes to think NBC brings something to the show.

Not an ad agency
She insisted NBC was not trying to supplant agencies as it talks with marketers about its digital media studios creating original content for them, an issue that was raised in a Business Week column last week. "We're not getting into the advertising agency business," she said. "We're not putting out a shingle that says we're looking to be a new age ad agency."

But Ms. Comstock didn't rule out revolutionary ideas such as one day having viewers pay for a show with an avid but small fan base, such as "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Such shows aren't economically viable in the broadcast TV model, which is based on aggregating a large number of viewers. Mr. Donaton raised the notion in an Advertising Age column earlier in the month.

"I can see it, sure," she said. But she said a more likely scenario is that NBC uses the web to speed up a development cycle, which it is doing with a show called "Nobody's Watching." She also noted how quickly a brand can flourish on the web and said that all the brand marketers in the room should be encouraged that YouTube was a brand built in a year.

YouTube as NBC 'frienemy'
And it wouldn't be a proper media Q&A without addressing whether Google-YouTube is a friend or foe to media companies. In the end, Ms. Comstock agreed it's a "frienemy." "Can you snub them?" asked Mr. Donaton.

"No, we tried that and it didn't work," she said. "When I wear my promotional hat I go, wow ... it's eyeballs and community. But from a making-money business perspective, I have to say I have to protect my content."

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