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NBC Plans Post- Friends Era

Zucker has strategy to keep ad dollars on the net's biggest night 4/27/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern

For many advertisers, NBC's Thursday-night schedule is a must buy. But recently, those advertisers have been wringing their hands and wondering how NBC will sustain the magic once Friends departs at the end of the 2003-04 season. They won't be in the dark for long. NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker says he will disclose what he has up his sleeve for the post-Friends
Thursday-night era at the network's prime time upfront presentation on May 12.

Thursday Prime Time Advertising
'02 revenue Vs. '01
Source: Competitive Media Reporting
ABC $283.8M -34%
CBS $660.1M +30%
NBC $983.0M Flat
Fox $127.3M +11%
Pax $20.1M -6%
UPN $103.8M +20%
The WB $84.5M -8%
Total $2.3B +1%

Zucker will also detail plans for next season, and the strategy for Thursday is to stand pat with the current lineup. "I feel good about those plans," he says, adding, "I think we have a good shot" at a Friends-sized hit with a show he has decided to replace it with.

For the past couple of seasons, NBC has tried to come up with a new crop of hits to maintain its Thursday-night supremacy.

But time may be running out. Analysts say the network may have one more development season to succeed or lose its supremacy in both Thursday-night ratings and ad dollars.

"With Friends
apparently entering its last season and recent declines among Frasier, West Wing
and even ER, new-series development will be more important than ever if NBC is to retain its lead among adults 18-49," says Steve Sternberg, senior vice president and director of audience analysis, Magna Global USA.

The stakes are enormous: Advertisers spend close to $1 billion annually on NBC's prime time Thursday-night schedule. The actual tally, according to Competitive Media Reporting, was $983 million in 2002.

That's the single biggest pile of ad dough spent on any network on any night of the week—by far. It's more than CBS and ABC combined did last year on Thursdays ($944 million).

Last year, NBC took in almost as much money spent on movie ads on Thursday ($113 million) as Fox had total revenue for the night ($127 million).

However, while NBC's Thursday ad total was the biggest in '02, it was flat with '01. Meanwhile, CBS, driven by Survivor
and CSI, the latter having overtaken ER
this season as the top-rated drama among adults 18-49 and 25-54, posted a 30% gain in Thursday-night advertising last year to a little more than $660 million. CBS's gain was a big loss for ABC, which almost disappeared on most Thursday nights. Its ad intake on Thursdays dropped 34% last year.

Movie dollars and auto spending drive the night for all the networks. Thursday-night auto dollars (cars and light trucks, foreign and domestic) totaled $280 million in 2002. Movie money reached $216 million.

Movie producers spend a disproportionate amount of their network budgets ($1.1 billion in 2002, according to Nielsen's Monitor-Plus ad-tracking service), or about 20%, on Thursdays. And they spend a disproportionate amount of their Thursday-night budgets on NBC: $113 million, or 52%. CBS got the next-biggest chunk in 2002, with $50 million; ABC got $29 million; Fox, $14 million.

Movie marketers target Thursday because that night has the greatest concentration of 18- to 49-year-olds viewers (followed by Monday and Sunday).

March