Upfront 07

Finally Living the Life Of Reilly

NBC Entertainment President Boasts a Solid Thursday Night Lineup and the Top New Show Among 18-49s

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Kevin Reilly still has to face Fox's "American Idol" Death Star, as he calls it, but after three years overseeing abysmal ratings at NBC, he's stopped apologizing.
Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment
Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment Credit: Chris Haston

For the first 16 weeks of the season, NBC actually tied for first place with CBS and ABC among 18- to 49-year-olds. (Last week -- week 17 -- saw CBS pull ahead just slightly.) NBC, partly thanks to "Sunday Night Football," is pointed in the right direction. "Heroes," the top new show this season among 18- to 49-year-olds, is returning to the schedule for the next half of its run (though it's going head-to-head with "24" on Fox). Thursdays haven't collapsed despite competition from ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and a still strong "CSI" on CBS. The network is building a new block titled "Comedy Night Done Right" to replace "Must See TV," and is hanging on to "30 Rock" in the hope it will grow the same way "The Office" did.

Happier and more relaxed
At this year's Television Critics Association tour, Mr. Reilly was clearly energized, happier and more relaxed. "We brought the love back this year," he told the crowd. "You bump into people, and you get the sort of mealy-mouthed compliments, like, 'Oh yeah, yeah, it's great, you know.' And it just kills you. This year it's great to have people going, 'Oh my, I love that show.' ... You can feel that, and it counts for something."

Even at the very top, his efforts have been recognized. "Kevin is doing a fantastic job, and we are pleased with the success the network has had this season," NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker said. That's a far cry from the lukewarm endorsements Mr. Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment, received this time last year, when it appeared he wouldn't last as long as this season.

"Kevin Reilly has been a great example of an entertainment president who knows what he has to accomplish, which is to reinvigorate his network," said Kris Magel, Zenith Media senior VP-account director. "NBC had rested far too long on its laurels and run shows until they no longer worked. He understands that to get longstanding franchises that people get connected to, you need to take risks."

Mr. Reilly said as early as last pilot season he had the shows that would help him climb back up the ladder. "I felt like I could see it on the page, that it felt like NBC again," he told Advertising Age during NBC's "All Star" party at the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena, Calif.

Darker moments
But he also recalled some of the darker moments of his time on the job. "I would think that we had actually hit the lowest point, and then it got worse. ... We'd look at the ratings like we ate breakfast: We eat three times a day, and when you're not getting any nutritional value, you get very hungry."

Mr. Reilly describes the past three years on the job as very hard work, explaining that it's a tough business when everything's going well, never mind when shows are falling apart. Of course there still is much work to do. Sunday nights will be hard now that football has departed, with the ever-weakening "The Apprentice" doing battle later this season against such events as the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards.

The football factor
Not everyone is ready to give Mr. Reilly his due, however. John Spiropoulos, VP-group research director, MediaVest USA, sees NBC's improvements in 18- to 49-year-old prime-time viewers coming mainly from other networks' declines, not its own audience building. He argues that if "Sunday Night Football" is taken out of the picture, NBC has actually declined slightly in the 18- to 49-year-old demo.

Still, NBC has high hopes and is already making plans for the upfront and the development meetings with advertisers in March. With $700 million in cost savings planned, NBC is doing all it can to improve the financial picture. Daytime soap "Passions" has been axed, and "Today" is adding a fourth hour, pushing "Martha" out of the 10 a.m. time slot in the New York and Los Angeles markets.
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