NBC Affiliates Sense a September To Remember
This fall, the Peacock posse finally feels the long-lost love of the network
By Michael Malone -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/23/2010 12:01:00 AM
Talk about your “event” programming.
“It’s a great time to be an NBC affiliate, and a year ago you just didn’t hear that,” says Chris Mossman, VP/general manager of WITN Greenville, N.C. “Nothing is guaranteed, but I’ve got a feeling we’re right on the verge of a turnaround.”
At that low ebb a year ago, NBC affiliates were anxious about how the risky Jay Leno-inprime experiment would play out. The network was living by NBC Universal President/CEO Jeff Zucker’s infamous “managing for margin” philosophy, with primetime dominated by inexpensive reality shows and its displaced Tonight Show host each weeknight at 10.
“NBC was trying to do things more efficiently,” says KOAA Colorado Springs President/ General Manager David Whitaker. “They’d gotten away from what made them—and any network— perform: quality dramas and sitcoms.”
But those who witnessed NBC’s upfront presentation at New York’s Hilton in May say the commitment from the network—which, of course, has a proposed merger with Comcast sitting before regulators in Washington—was there in spades. While everyone concedes that a snazzy trailer and subsequent buzz do not often translate to a ratings-sustaining smash (oh, how the critics loved Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip!), many say the programs, including sexy spy drama Undercovers and offbeat laugher Outsourced, look like the network’s best batch of rookies in years.
“I give NBC a lot of credit for the speed with which they committed money to development,” says LIN Media Executive VP Scott Blumenthal. “They realized they had issues, and they made changes. It’s the best [rookie crop] in a while—it really is.”
Affiliates credit NBC for tapping proven producers like Jerry Bruckheimer (Chase) and J.J. Abrams (Undercovers), along with Law & Order mastermind Dick Wolf launching a Los Angeles offshoot of the warhorse franchise. Another plus is established talent such as Outlaw star Jimmy Smits and The Event’s Blair Underwood.
“I think that for the first time in many years, the programs we saw in development this spring indicate the levels of spending we think are probably appropriate for prime,” says Gannett Broadcasting President Dave Lougee, who oversees a dozen NBC affiliates. “Clearly, the behind- the-scenes talent that they’ve gone out and gotten gives us a lot of optimism.”
Looking for that boost
With NBC’s endlessly documented primetime drought extending for several years, hard-bitten affiliates have largely learned to succeed without a boost from prime, sharpening their content and promotions to get viewers to change the channel from more popular programs on CBS, ABC and Fox to late news on the local NBC. Heavyweight stations such as KING Seattle and WDIV Detroit are among the many NBC affi liates nationwide that win the late news race despite distant finishes in prime.
But the cracks were starting to show, and frustration with prime was mounting at the station level. Stations’ late news represents 20%-25% of their news revenue, according to Frank N. Magid Associates, and perhaps 10% of the overall revenue figure. Without a strong lead-in, stations were bleeding ratings points and revenue.
“Prime is crucial—every ratings point in prime is revenue for the station,” says KSNV Las Vegas General Manager Lisa Howfield. “If a decent lead-in gives you an extra ratings point, or even half a point, it really adds up.”
General managers at NBC affiliates offer little complaint about the network’s other daypart properties, including morning monolith Today, NBC Nightly News, The Tonight Show (with Leno back in his old chair), and sports such as the blockbuster Sunday Night Football and the Olympics—both of which provide giant promotional stages for the network’s shows. “News has been phenomenal,” says WKYC Cleveland President/General Manager Brooke Spectorsky. “Today continues to read the audience pretty damn well. The job [NBC News President] Steve Capus has done is really good.”
NBC affiliates say relations with the network have been exceedingly positive of late. While the other networks are increasingly pushing their affiliates for a bigger taste of the retransmission consent cash the locals are getting from paytelevision operators, many affiliates say NBC appears more willing to be partners, not adversaries. The NBC affiliates board pushed hard on a list of assurances from Comcast should the merger get the green light, including establishing a “firewall” between affiliation agreements and retrans negotiations, and ensuring that bigticket sports stay on NBC. Presumably satisfied with Comcast’s response, the board gave the proposed merger its blessing.
The vast majority on the affiliate side say they expect things to stay copacetic on the retrans front—for now. “There’s not too much to discuss,” Blumenthal says. “I think it will remain quiet until [Comcast-NBCU] is finalized.”
Of course, in television, optimism can drop off as quickly as ratings after a primetime premiere. The general managers concede that a few programs from NBC’s new litter will meet their demise before the leaves start to change color in New York. (Can Paul Reiser rise again? Many affiliates think not.) “There’s still the element of the unknown as to how these shows will do,” says WHO Des Moines VP/General Manager Dale Woods. “I feel better this year than we have in a long time, but we’ll see what it looks like a month [in].”
Others harbor concerns about whether NBC’s big investment in programming this year is a one-off, fueled by having huge holes to fill post-Jay Leno Show and extra wind in its sails from the pending merger—which, of course, could very well crater. “NBC spent this year to get decent programming, but if there’s no Comcast, do we still get that kind of support?” Spectorsky wonders. “That’s the scary part.”
And it’s worth mentioning that affiliates of ABC, CBS and Fox seem plenty stoked about their primetime, too; the rival networks are game for keeping NBC locked in the cellar. “CBS has had a great prime, and everybody came out of the upfront extremely excited,” says Jerry Bever, general manager at Anchorage’s CBS affiliate KTVA, of last season’s overall primetime ratings champ. “We’re confident the dominance will continue.”
NBC’s affiliates have a modest threshold for success: Most would be happy with one true stud among the 14 shows teased at the upfront presentation, and one or two Chuck-esque players who can hit .290 and field their position. Many think this may be the year the network does it. While the affiliates have learned throughout NBC’s prime slump to control their own destiny, they concede a little lightning out of Rockefeller Center would significantly help their bottom line. “We’re OK right now,” says KING Seattle President/General Manager Ray Heacox. “But one or two good hits out of fall would make us feel real good.”
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