NBC's Zucker Defends Network's New Programming Schedule

CEO Says Critics Should Applaud Money-Saving Move of Two Hours of Scripted Programming

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker tried to put the best spin possible on the media industry's increasing woes, saying during a question-and-answer session today that he was placing faith in his company's cable assets while NBC and others attempt to figure out how to monetize TV and other programming in an increasingly digital world.

Jeff Zucker
Jeff Zucker Credit: NBC/Trae Patton
NBC is best known for its broadcast network, but its cable networks now contribute the majority of operating profit to its operations. So Mr. Zucker believes the time has come to abandon or rejigger regular processes and long-held beliefs.

'The world has changed'
"The only sure way to declare defeat is to say 'I'm going to keep doing it the same old way,'" Mr. Zucker said of media companies that wish to hew to legacy ways of doing business. "The world has changed." He made his remarks at a session held during a Digital Hollywood Media Summit, being held this week in New York City.

He touted NBC Universal's cable operations and suggested they would see growth in the coming "upfront" market, when advertisers routinely commit marketing dollars for commercials in the fall TV season. At the same time, he acknowledged that "there is frankly some paralysis on the part of advertisers who aren't sure what their budgets are going to be," and said he believed the upfront for broadcast networks "will be slower and there may not be as much inventory."

His talk comes as media buyers are looking more skeptically at certain aspects of NBC's broadcast network. Many of the programs it launched last fall -- and even "Kings," a buzzed-about drama that premiered Sunday -- have not performed up to expectations. By putting late-night talk show host Jay Leno in a 10 p.m. roost next fall, the network will produce five fewer hours of scripted dramas and comedies or reality programming. Mr. Zucker said the network does not expect to garner the ratings it would get for more traditional fare in that timeslot.

Mr. Zucker defended the move, saying that rivals have already devised a system with fewer hours of programming without being castigated for it. "Nobody thinks Fox is any less of a network or the CW. They don't denigrate that because it's only two hours a night."

Judge us for managing costs
He also suggested that TV networks be judged for their ability to manage costs as well as produce mass-consumed entertainment. It's a plea many media companies are making as they see traditional measures of success -- ratings and circulation, among others -- decline while consumers enjoy more content and information via digital means.

"I don't want to say ratings don't matter, because they do. This is not about ratings don't matter. This is about they are not the only gauge of success," Mr. Zucker said. "We're in show business, and the show is important, and the business is important. I think it was easier to be in the show when the business was easier," he said.

The media chief said NBC Universal was making some progress in the quest to monetize traditional TV content online. Where he once warned that media companies could not afford to lose analog dollars in exchange for digital pennies, he joked today that he felt NBC was now able to get "digital dimes."

"I think we've actually made some progress, but there's still a long way to go from dimes to dollars," he said.

The TV business will remain in transition for some time to come, he added. "What we've lost in terms of viewers and ad dollars on the traditional audience system is not being made up, not even close, on the digital side. Until we do that, there is a risk," he said. "I think we'll get there, but can we survive from here to there is the question. A lot of newspapers have not been able to survive, and a lot of local TV stations are having trouble surviving. So we believe in ubiquitous distribution. We want our content to continue to be available. We want to find an economic model that makes sense" and "the next two to three years is going to be what that's all about."

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