News Articles

NBC Affiliates Sense a September To Remember

This fall, the Peacock posse finally feels the long-lost love of the network 8/23/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern

The TV business is full of
wild mood swings, but few
general managers at NBC
stations would have believed
how dramatically their state
of mind could change in a
year’s time. Last summer, affiliate morale was famously in the dumps. But buoyed by well-funded,
well-received fall debutants—the taut political
thriller The Event and high-octane U.S. marshal
drama Chase chief among them—a number of
NBC affiliates believe the new season just might
mark the long-awaited awakening for NBC’s ailing
primetime, vastly helping stations’ late news
and overall revenue picture.

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.”

NBC_CoverChart.jpg

Who’ll be 2010’s
‘Bionic Woman’?

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.”

E-mail comments to
mmalone@nbmedia.com
and follow him on Twitter: @StationBiz

March