NBC's Upfront Presentation Now a 'Spotlight Event'

Showcase for all NBC Universal Properties, Not Just the Peacock Network

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC promises big changes to the upfront sales process, TV's annual ritual of wooing advertisers and getting them to commit a large chunk of their yearly marketing budgets to the networks. But like any other process mired in tradition, some of the rules can be hard to ignore.
NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker
NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker Credit: NBC/Trae Patton

The Peacock network, which has struggled with ratings declines and programming misses in the last few years, is tweaking how it presents its programming slate to media buyers and marketers. Rather than focus solely on fall programming, as networks have for years, NBC will instead announce a 52-week programming schedule in April, with a series of one-on-one meetings to follow immediately with clients in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Even so, NBC's parent company will still hold what it calls a "spotlight event" on May 12 that sounds suspiciously like a business-as-usual upfront presentation, although the network will use the occasion to showcase NBC Universal's many properties, not just the NBC broadcast network.

And yes, there will be a party afterwards.

Marketers need more time
Broadcast networks have for decades trotted out sneak peaks of pilot episodes in the hopes of getting advertisers to commit what has become more than $9 billion in prime-time advertising. With the writers strike crimping program development, however, the networks have much less to talk about, prompting many media buyers to advocate they abandon glitzy but costly upfront presentations that routinely feature heaping bowls of shrimp, free cocktails and the chance to rub elbows with fresh-faced actors and actresses.

But the timing of the big push, in mid-May, doesn't mesh with many marketers' planning periods. The marketers and their agencies have "constantly" asked for "more time to react to the schedule, to understand the schedule so that we can do more intricate, more creative, more innovative marketing campaigns," said Mike Pilot, president-ad sales for NBC Universal. The move could help give NBC "a month and a half jump on the industry," he said, and give it more opportunity to craft product placements in specific programs, sponsorship deals and ad deals that play across NBC Universal's many properties.

The move also comes as networks have launched more programs in January and the summer, and advertisers such as Johnson & Johnson have grown more vocal about wanting to spend money on TV at a time when it suits their business plans, not at an arbitrary period in May.

NBC is, in some sense, trying to have it both ways. NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker had been out making speeches and talking to the press in recent weeks about how the big upfront meeting is a vestige of a past era. But Fox, CBS, the CW and ABC have all expressed their intention to hold the large presentations, which often bring droves of ad buyers and advertisers to New York, and NBC faced looking less than enthusiastic about its ad and program offerings if it didn't try to match its competitors in some fashion.

'Wait and see'
One rival downplayed the notion that NBC meeting with clients in advance of the upfront represents innovation. "All these meetings we're doing anyway. Meetings aren't anything new," Mike Shaw, president-sales at Walt Disney's ABC, said in an interview last week. An upfront presentation "is additive" to other efforts, he said. "It's not in lieu of. I'm not going to do one or the other."

Media buyers seem mixed on the NBC initiatives. "It will be a wait and see," said Carrie Drinkwater, a senior VP-group account director at Havas's MPG. She applauded the idea of individual meetings, saying the idea would allow advertisers to get a more granular sense of potential ad opportunities, "of having the dialogue move to individual program strategies, by night, by genre, and more about how [programs] are going to flow through the year."

Another buyer said one-on-one events could draw focus to the advantages of network TV, but might not sway overall dollars. "Is that going to change how we are going to allocate between cable and network, or print and outdoor and digital? No, I really don't think so," said Ira Berger, who supervises broadcast buying at Richards Group, an independent Dallas agency.

Announcing a 52-week schedule in April, well before rivals unveil theirs in May, could give NBC a slight competitive advantage, said one media buyer. But this executive also pointed out that many network programs fail and schedules change multiple times; there is reason not to put a lot of faith in a programming scenario sketched out months ahead of the dates certain programs are scheduled to run.

Possible economic gain
The idea, however, could bring an economic benefit to NBC, which will be able to develop shows year-round and have a finer touch in scheduling programs. The network has grown weary of the traditional "pilot season" in which it lines up tens of programs, most of which go on to fail, said Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. A pilot season is "not predictive of success," he said. "It never has been and it's just been wasting hundreds of millions of dollars that this industry can no longer afford."

NBC may face a tougher road than some of its rivals going into the upfront marketplace. While it has had some success with programs including "Heroes," "The Office" and "30 Rock," it has yet to launch a ratings juggernaut on the order of a "Friends," "Frasier" or "Seinfeld" in recent years. Even so, the network has fared better than CBS and ABC in at least one way, according to analysis from Michael Nathanson, a media analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein. Live prime-time audiences between the ages of 18 and 49 had dipped 11% through Jan. 27, according to the analyst. But while CBS's ratings in that category are off 19.6% and ABC's off 15.2%, NBC's have dipped 13.8%. Only Fox, which boasts the popular "American Idol," was able to goose those ratings, and only by 3.7%.

Despite some of its hurdles, the network has proven increasingly innovative when dealing with marketers, inviting earlier discussions that have resulted in new ad concepts that play off the programs in which they appear, whether that be a "Heroes" contest sponsored by Sprint, a long-form ad from Honda that helps introduce new NBC programs, or an ad from Allstate that touched upon issues presented in a particular episode of "Friday Night Lights."
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