Silverman's Magic Touch Fails to Jump-Start NBC

Exec Has Been a Boon for Profitability, but Net Struggles for Hits

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NEW YORK ( -- When Ben Silverman arrived as co-chairman of NBC's entertainment division last year, the expectation was that his magic touch would breathe new life into the network that has watched its ratings drop since losing powerhouses such as "Friends," "Frasier" and "Seinfeld."
Ben Silverman
Ben Silverman Credit: Virginia Sherwood

Mr. Silverman, a talented production executive with a knack for hits, arrived at NBC with ABC's "Ugly Betty" and NBC's "The Office" on his resume. He also brought a vision for aligning advertisers with entertainment properties. Two of those deals for NBC included Ford cars woven into "Knight Rider" and General Motors vehicles appearing in "My Own Worst Enemy." What has become increasingly apparent, however, is that while he's been great for NBC's profitability, he is not an instant cure for the larger problems afflicting the Peacock.

Despite a flurry of activity, Mr. Silverman's touch hasn't translated to better ratings at NBC, where executives suggest a turnaround is going to take more time. Already, the network faces a tight squeeze: Its veteran shows, including "ER," "Law & Order" -- even the newish "Heroes" -- are shedding viewers, while its freshman slate has not delivered. NBC has already canceled "My Own Worst Enemy," a new spy drama starring Christian Slater that was touted heavily during the network's recent Olympics broadcasts. Meanwhile, ratings for "Knight Rider," "Kath & Kim" and "Crusoe" are lackluster.

Last out of four
Currently, NBC is last in the key adult 18-34 demographic in terms of live-plus-same-day ratings behind leader ABC, second-place CBS and third-place Fox, according to Nielsen's season-to-date rankings as of Nov. 16.

Mr. Silverman was not available for comment, an NBC spokeswoman said.

The network is "struggling a little bit," said Sam Armando, senior VP-director of video research at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA. "You cannot find that one program that sizzles. It used to be 'Heroes.' And then you have difficulty looking beyond, saying, 'Here's the program on the horizon that's going turn this thing around.' When you combine all of these elements -- the lower ratings, the decline versus last year and the look into the crystal ball, I think that's putting them in a place where they are receiving more criticism than their competitors."

Five years ago, this sort of talk might have people calling for a quick change in the ranks of the network's entertainment executives. That's when NBC hits like "The Apprentice," "Friends," "ER" and "Law & Order" each brought in on average between 14 million and 21 million live-plus-same-day viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. But NBC is managing in a vastly different environment -- one in which big double-digit ratings typically come around for events such as the Super Bowl, or an interview with President-elect Barack Obama -- and viewers can graze venues other than broadcast for their favorite programs. These days, "Heroes" reached an average of 8.9 million live-plus-same-day viewers over seven weeks, according to Nielsen, while "30 Rock" reached an average of 8.1 million over three weeks and "Law & Order: SVU" reached an average of about 9.7 million over six weeks.

And NBC isn't alone. All the broadcast networks are showing dips in adults 18-49, 18-34 and 25-54, according to research from Wachovia Capital Markets. Walt Disney's ABC has also seen freshman and sophomore programs such as "Life on Mars" and "Pushing Daisies" struggle, with the latter being put on hiatus late last week. Media buyers can point to few outright hits in the new fall season, though they think "The Mentalist" on CBS and "Fringe" on Fox have some legs.

Redeeming qualities
In this sort of a world, a media conglomerate like NBC Universal might look for other skills. Under Mr. Silverman's aegis, the network has demonstrated a talent for bringing in extra money through product-placement deals and keeping down production costs in some cases by avoiding pilots. Even so, executives acknowledge that they have work to do.

"We're under the microscope, and we should be until we can close this three-tenths of a ratings point gap and get us back on top of the heap. That's what we are focused on," said Mitch Metcalf, exec VP-program planning & scheduling at NBC Universal. "We want to do that in a rational, financially responsible way. We just have to do it one show at a time."

Media buyers, however, worry that NBC is losing its distinction in the marketplace as it casts about for bigger audiences. These buyers suggest that the network was once the place advertisers could go to find urbane, high-income audiences -- and would pay a premium for doing so. The network known for high-quality programs such as "Hill Street Blues," "Homicide: Life on the Street," "The West Wing" and "Family Ties" has struggled to come up with a 2008 version of any of those. Now, it's fast making a name for itself as a place for big-bang reality ("The Biggest Loser," "Deal or No Deal") and remakes of older programs ("Bionic Woman," "Knight Rider").

"It used to be they went for class, and the mass came with it," said Shari Anne Brill, senior VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat. To be sure, NBC shows like "30 Rock" and "The Office" still get critics' plaudits, but the shows aren't drawing the audiences to match.

While noting "I don't think we're necessarily satisfied with where we are in the fourth quarter," Teri Weinberg, exec VP-NBC Entertainment, points to lots of programming in the immediate future that she thinks should allay concerns.

Critical favorite "Friday Night Lights" is slated to return to NBC's airwaves (after debuting first on DirecTV), and buzz is developing among media buyers for "Kings," a drama featuring actor Ian McShane.

"There's an undercurrent of favorability" for that show as well as a new comedy from the producers of "The Office" that will star "Saturday Night Live" comedienne Amy Poehler, believes Ms. Brill.

Improvements in progress
NBC is also moving to tweak programs as audiences react, Ms. Weinberg said. "We've had to course-correct" on "Kath & Kim" as more episodes were completed, she said. When it comes to "Heroes" and "My Own Worst Enemy," a sense is emerging that complex plotlines aren't what viewers want at present.

"Our audience might be looking for shows that might be a little bit easier and a little bit breezier at this time," she said.

"It's tough out there. It's a time we have to look at our audience and say, 'Maybe we need to allow our audience to sit back,'" said Ms. Weinberg.

NBC made headlines earlier this year for saying it would cut down on the number of pilots it ordered, opting instead to go straight to series in some cases. The move can potentially save a network a significant amount of money. Ms. Weinberg said that the network is putting that idea into place "on a case by case basis," feeling comfortable about it when the right actors, showrunners and producers are in place from the start.

While buyers say they are concerned about NBC, none of them say clients are pulling dollars and moving elsewhere. NBC "is certainly a viable option. They are certainly reaching a lot more viewers than most cable networks and a lot of digital properties," said Carrie Drinkwater, senior VP-co-director, national broadcast at Havas' MPG. She is willing to give NBC more time because Mr. Silverman and his team "tried to take some chances with something different."

Changing executives at the current time would prompt dismay among advertisers, rather than making them feel better about the network, said Ira Berger, director-network broadcasting at Richards Group. "At the end of the day, it's going to take you more units to get the proposed ratings points [agreed upon in advertiser contracts]. I'm not going to say it's good, but it's not a disaster," he said, adding: "Switching coaches all the time is never the answer. You get the right guy in and stay with him."
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