NATPE 2008

NBCU's Zucker: New Business Model Not Ready For Prime Time

Why Broadcast TV Must Change Its Development Cycle

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NEW YORK ( -- If the theme of this year's National Association of Television Program Executives Conference is a change to the traditional broadcast TV model, than Jeff Zucker will be at the forefront of it.
Jeff Zucker
Jeff Zucker Credit: NATPE

The NBC Universal CEO spoke at length in his keynote this morning of the developments that have accelerated these changes, most recently the writers strike. "That is only the most visible sign of disruption," Mr. Zucker said. The rise of TiVos and other digital recording devices as well as "video snacking" online have forced broadcasters to change their business models, yet their "replacements ... are not necessarily ready for prime time."

Speaking of prime time, Mr. Zucker also addressed the fate of this year's upfront presentation, which he has suggested in recent weeks may not exist in its previous dog-and-pony-show form. When NBC talks about the upfront, he said, it means two things: the glitzy presentation and selling a large percentage of its ad inventory in early summer. "The way we sell that inventory is not going to change. That business of the business remains the same," Mr. Zucker said, yet he and his programming duo, Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff, are "very close" to making a final decision about this year's presentation. Mr. Zucker suggested the possibility of making individual presentations to every major agency and advertiser. "Ben and Marc are beginning to book their travel plans, if that gives you any indication," he said.

Scaling back
But NBC's upfront more likely may be a scaled-back event similar to the out-of-home presentation its NBC Everywhere group hosted in New York two weeks ago. "We might try to do some event like that which brings together all the elements of the company," Mr. Zucker said. "We'd probably be on our own in doing this at first, but we know the system that's been around for the last 20 to 30 years needs to change."

A more intimate event also would take some of the focus away from expensive pilots, which NBC is scaling back on in a big way this year. Mr. Silverman has already announced his intention to pursue so-called "back-door pilots," or direct-to-air remakes of pre-existing shows such as "American Gladiator" and "Knight Rider," as the new model of series development.

Mr. Zucker said the traditional fall pilot season hasn't worked for any major network the way it used to in recent years. Of the new shows that premiered this season, Mr. Zucker said, "none could be considered a success." From the previous year, he could point to only "Heroes" and ABC's "Brothers and Sisters" as breakout hits.

NBC's most successful executions of the traditional pilot model have been on cable. Top-rated USA Network commissioned only five pilots last year, four of which made it to air and two of which, "Psych" and "Burn Notice," ended up setting ratings records for the network and basic cable.

"We don't think [USA's success] is because they have less hours to fill," Mr. Zucker said. "There's more reliance on script development and gut. It's not about making less programming. It's about making less waste."
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