Media Money with Julia Boorstin

NBC's New TV Strategy: Prime Time, All The Time


In a departure from decades-old network TV standards, NBC is unveiling its first-ever 52-week program schedule. Calling this afternoon's presentation an "Infront" presentation, it leads up to the network "Upfront" presentations in May, when the TV networks traditionally present their fall schedule.

NBC is taking a whole new approach. Instead of just launching most new scripted shows in the fall, NBC plans to spread show premiers throughout the year.

My advertising industry contacts area already buzzing about it, eager to see what NBC will present. Fox has premiered new shows in the summer, but advertisers tell me this is the first time one of the "big three" has pushed to go year-round. And advertisers are hoping that unlike reality-heavy Fox, NBC will evenly distribute its best comedies and dramas through the year.

This is partly an upshot of the 100-day writers' strike that shut down the TV industry and ate into pilot development. NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker is seizing this opportunity to dramatically cut down the number of pilots the company commissions, and streamlining the inefficient system.

All the networks tend to produce pilots at the same time--putting actors, writers in high demand--and debuts them in the same chunk of time, when viewers have more to watch then they can handle.

Instead of ordering the usual 70 pilots some costing millions of dollars, NBC is ordering 30. But since pilots do serve a purpose--showing how a writers style or wacky concept translates to the TV format--fewer pilots mean less wiggle room for NBC, so the network is playing it safe with the pilots it does have.

In addition to bringing back more shows than usual from last year, NBC and the other networks are basing new shows on recent hits. Viewers like NBC's "Heroes," so they'll make more shows about people with special powers. They also did this last season with shows like NBC's "Life" and "Bionic Woman."

Then there are the revivals. The CW network trusts that an update to the "Beverly Hills 90210" phenomenon will snag viewers. NBC is bringing back "Knight Rider" from the 1980s. And the networks are continuing to adapt and copy overseas hits. This is something that NBC TV chief Ben Silverman is familiar with as he used to run production house Reveille that specialized in buying rights to and adapting international hits, particularly from the UK.

And the nets are changing the way they make pilots. NBC made "Knight Rider" into a two hour TV movie-- it got ratings and ad dollars, but it functioned as a test for the show.

If the network hadn't decided to pick it up, the show still serves its purpose as a TV movie and even as a DVD. And in a dramatic shift, they're actually committing to shows without seeing pilots--virtually unheard of until recently. NBC pulled the trigger on "My Own Worst Enemy" because it stars Christian Slater. Fox committed to new series "Dollhouse" because it trusts its creator, who's responsible for hit "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

NBC's New Strategy

What do advertisers think? The couple of ad buyers I talked to say they're happy. Advertisers want more eyeballs, and if shows are spread out over the year and not crammed together, ratings over the summer could go up.

Brad Adgate at Horizon Media tells me that NBC has reassured him that when it cancels a show, it would replace it with one from the same genre: reality with reality, drama with drama, which is what advertisers want to hear. He also told me that because last summer cable ratings were so strong, there's clearly viewer interest, which means the nets should be able to pick up some of those ratings and ad dollars.

I'll blog more on NBC's strategy after their presentation today.

Disclosure: CNBC is owned by NBC Universal, which is a unit of GE .

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