NBC Schedule Reveals Turmoil in TV

Road to the Upfront: Slate Includes Just Four Fall Shows, Other Experiments

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With advertisers and media outlets concerned about the ramifications of a weak economy, NBC today unveiled a programming schedule whose broad strokes reflect some of the new realities for network TV: a limited number of program launches, potentially shorter runs of new shows, and nontraditional alliances with advertisers and other media outlets to keep some programs on the air.
NBC Fall Schedule

NBC Fall Schedule

NBC Fall Schedule

The General Electric network said it would launch just four new programs in the fall, and four more in winter/spring 2009. Additionally, NBC said it had entered into a distribution agreement with DirecTV that would keep fan favorite "Friday Night Lights" on the air, but have it broadcast first on DirecTV and telecast on NBC later in 2009; and signed a pact that would make the insurer Liberty Mutual a sponsor of a two-hour pilot of the new drama "Kings." It's also the first slate of shows developed under the watch of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios Co-Chairman Ben Silverman, known for developing advertiser-friendly shows.

Ratings fall as eyeballs wander
Many of NBC's developments reflect some of the pressures on network TV as more consumers use new and emerging media to glean information and watch entertainment. Prime-time ratings for viewers between the ages of 18 and 49, excluding sports, have dipped 16% this TV season through March 16, according to research from Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Michael Nathanson. Fox's ratings in that category are down 5.7%, while ABC's have tumbled 17.6%, NBC's 17.2% and CBS's 24.2%.

And as ratings erode, networks have been forced to limit the number of programs they develop as well as the number of episodes they order. The recently ended writers strike exacerbated some of those conditions.

While NBC is putting quality shows on the air, some "aren't doing the numbers we would normally have hoped for," said Andy Donchin, director of broadcast at Aegis Group's Carat. "We are somewhat disappointed with some of the ratings of some shows that are truly great shows."

During meetings with advertisers and journalists this week, Mr. Silverman articulated a strategy in which NBC would use big events including its telecast of the Summer Olympics and the next Super Bowl to launch returning favorites and new programs he said reflected a theme of escapism.

On the bright side ...
"Our characters are trying to be the best they can be," he said, noting that rolling out new shows across the season allowed the network to make each launch more distinctive rather than pushing all the new programs out in September, as has been the norm for network TV.
Ben Silverman
Ben Silverman

Meanwhile, Mr. Silverman said the network aimed to run a schedule largely devoid of repeats, a feat accomplished by "resting" certain series so they aired in a limited window and at a specific time during the year. The fall season includes just four new programs: "My Own Worst Enemy," a drama starring Christian Slater; "Kath & Kim," a comedy whose premise is imported from Australia; "Crusoe," a drama focused on the famous Robinson Crusoe character; and "Knight Rider," a revival of an old NBC program.

In October, Mr. Silverman said, NBC would run "SNL Election" specials, in which the cast and writers of the late-night program "Saturday Night Live" would use political developments and the presidential elections as grist for their laugh mill. Among NBC's returning programs are "Heroes," "Lipstick Jungle," "The Office," "30 Rock," "Deal or No Deal," "Life" and "Law & Order SVU." NBC said it would broadcast the final season of the venerable medical drama "ER." Not too surprisingly, the disappointing "The Bionic Woman" was not renewed.

In 2009, new programs will include "The Philanthropist," a drama about a billionaire who uses his wealth to help people in need; "Merlin," a fantasy series set in Camelot; the aforementioned "Kings"; and a spin-off of popular comedy series "The Office," about which executives declined to offer much information. NBC will debut the program after next year's Super Bowl. "Law & Order" will return to the schedule, along with "Friday Night Lights," "Celebrity Apprentice" and "Medium."

Let's work together
While most broadcast networks announce their programming schedules in May, NBC has said it is trying to get a jump on things by giving advertisers an earlier look in order to foster closer ties to specific programs and themes. By giving marketers a "deeper look earlier," said Mike Pilot, NBC Universal's president-sales and marketing, the network hopes to foster more commercial concepts that are "customized" to individual moments on the schedule, and therefore more interesting and relevant to viewers.

The network said it was unveiling a schedule that would take it into the summer of 2009, but Mr. Silverman cautioned that NBC could and would make "adjustments," depending on market circumstances.

Mr. Silverman said he had deliberately segmented the schedule so that different kinds of audiences were targeted at different hours. The 8 p.m. time slot would mark the start of a "family hour," he said, while 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. would be reserved for "blockbusters," and 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. would be filled with "adult themes and high-end drama."

One ad executive felt the schedule would appeal to consumers looking to ride out a year of economic and political uncertainty. "There is a lot of divisiveness. The business section isn't full of good news," said Guy McCarter, managing director of Green Room Entertainment, the entertainment-marketing arm of Omnicom Media Group. "The strategy is to program against the zeitgeist of American consumers in need of winners, good guys, bad guys, family hours at 8 -- you know, not overly complicated plotlines. I feel like that made sense."
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