When NBC Universal presents next season's television schedule Wednesday, it will do so six weeks ahead of the other major U.S. networks, providing its new prime-time shows with an added shot of publicity and buzz.
They'll need it.
For NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox, the current TV season ranks as one of the worst in memory, thanks to a strike by Hollywood screenwriters; an absence of breakout hits; and DVDs, video games and the Web competing for television's audience.
"There is a lot at stake for the broadcast networks. They are down substantially again versus last year, when they were down against the previous year," said Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast at media buyer Carat North America. "I think they all have a lot to prove."
None more than NBC, media analysts and buyers said, pointing out that the broadcast network 80 percent owned by General Electric , and is the parent of CNBC and CNBC.com, is once again in danger of finishing last in prime-time ratings.
At NBC Universal, in which France's Vivendi owns the other 20 percent, the broadcast network's performance has overshadowed strong results in its other businesses. The company rang up a record profit of $3.5 billion in 2007, largely due to Universal Pictures, Universal Parks and its cable networks, including USA and Bravo.
But NBC Universal's broadcast network is -- in many ways -- the public face of the company, and it has yet to recover from a ratings slump that began when longtime comedy favorites "Friends" and "Frasier" ended their runs four years ago.
One result of the network's troubles is talk that General Electric could seek the sale of the media company. Some have speculated that GE might start shopping it after the summer Olympics, which will be broadcast by NBC.
GE Chief Executive Jeff Immelt dismissed such rumors in his letter to investors in February, writing "Should we sell NBCU? The answer is no! I just don't see it happening not before the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games not after the Olympic Games. It doesn't make sense."
NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker has also said that NBC isn't about to be sold, and a year ago he shook up management at the broadcast network in an attempt to bring stronger shows to air and jump-start ratings.
Ben Silverman, the producer of television hits "The Office" and "Ugly Betty," was hired to help run NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, concentrating on the creative side of the business. NBC's 2008-09 presentation on Wednesday will be the first schedule rolled out under Silverman's watch.
The presentation will come far earlier than usual. Typically, NBC and the other major networks unveil their new prime-time lineups in May during the "upfront presentations," then begin locking up about $9 billion worth of commercial contracts with advertisers.
But Zucker broke with tradition after the writers' strike delayed the development season and convinced executives that they could live without producing as many time-consuming and expensive pilots. NBC will also announce a 52-week lineup, rather than one concentrated on shows debuting in the fall.
NBC could - and likely will - alter the schedule as it gets a look at what the other broadcast networks plan for 2008-09 during their upfront presentations in May.
Still, by presenting early, NBC is giving advertisers more time to consider its new shows and how to market within and around them, said David Scardino, the entertainment specialist with media buying firm RPA. NBC also won't have to compete with the other networks for buzz about the new shows, since it's getting a head start on presenting them.
But that could backfire.
"The early hype will be just that -- early hype," Scardino said. "The isolation is good, but it also isolates the fact that their ratings are down so much."
NBC is expected to unveil a schedule with more fantasy and action programs than in the past, while sticking with critically acclaimed shows like "30 Rock" and "The Office," which have yet to become big ratings hits.
"They come up with these shows -- 'Friday Night Lights,' '30 Rock,' 'The Office' -- and people still aren't watching them. It's frustrating for them and us," said Carat's Donchin.
Scardino, meanwhile, expressed concern that NBC would chase less expensive shows -- sacrificing quality -- in hopes of keeping costs down and helping the bottom line.
"When I look at everything that they do, the one clear impression that I come away with is their number one priority is cutting costs," he said.
ABC is owned by Walt Disney , Fox is owned by News Corp and CBS is owned by CBS Corp .