Coming This Fall: Signs of Life at NBC

Led by 'The Voice,' that turnaround the network’s executives have been patiently waiting for might finally be here 10/15/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

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NBC’s 30 Rock has spent much of its past six seasons
smartly mocking the network’s primetime woes. But
if the comedy was not already in its final season, it
might have found itself needing a new story line.

While 30 Rock’s recent season premiere featured Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon
and Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy conspiring to “tank NBC,” over at the
real perennially fourth-place network, the fall primetime schedule is finally showing signs of turning a corner.

In perhaps the most symbolic sign of its improving
fortunes, NBC won premiere week
with the key adults 18-49 demo for the ! rst
time since 2003. A week later, it repeated the
feat for the second week of the season, making
it the top-rated network season-to-date; a
year ago, it was No. 4.

MovinUp_Chart.jpgNBC’s turnaround is thanks almost exclusively to The Voice, which has
successfully moved itself to a fall cycle and helped launch the season’s top-rated new series (Revolution)
as well as Tuesday comedies Go
and The New Normal (for media
buyers’ reactions to those series’
early pick-ups).

“You look at what [NBC’s]
Monday nights were last year
at this time with The Sing-Off
and The Playboy Club, and look
what they’ve got this year with
The Voice and Revolution—that’s
about as dramatic a change in a
network’s fortunes as you could
have,” says Brad Adgate, senior
VP of research at Horizon Media.

Early and Often

NBC’s strategy was to heavily
promote its fall lineup during its
coverage of the London Olympics
and launch the majority of its new
series before the official start of the
2012-13 season. In some cases,
the exposure has worked (Revolution,
Go On); in others, it has not
(Animal Practice, Guys With Kids).

PremiereWeek_Chart.jpgBut NBC brass sees benefits to
the wave of on-air promotions
beyond their debatable effectiveness for launching new series.

“I think [the benefit] is more generic than that. It made NBC part
of the conversation again,” says Jeff Bader, president of program planning,
strategy and research for NBC Entertainment.

More important than the Olympics has been the move of The Voice to
fall. Though down 27% from where it was the corresponding week of
its last spring cycle (which launched out of the Super Bowl), the show’s
Monday telecast is averaging a 4.5 rating, is the No. 3 entertainment
show on TV and is tracking 32% higher than Fox’s rival, The X Factor.

“One show can change the perception, and I think that’s the show
that’s changing the perception of NBC,” says Bill Carroll, VP and
director of programming at Katz
Television Group.

Helping NBC’s perceived turnaround
is that it is consistently
winning Mondays thanks to The
. That’s a surprise to those
inside and outside the network,
who expected a more competitive
Dancing With the Stars from ABC
and didn’t foresee CBS’ comedy
lineup down quite as much as it is
without Two and a Half Men.

‘The Voice’ Effect

All this isn’t to say NBC’s schedule
is without problems, and lots
of them. While the network’s
night-to-night building strategy
is working Sunday through Tuesday,
Wednesday remains a lowrated
jumble (new drama Chicago
flamed out in its Oct. 10
premiere with a 1.9 rating) and
crucial Thursday nights are a continued
disaster and sinking along
with the final season of The Office.

NBC’s move of the low-rated
newsmagazine Rock Center With
Brian Williams
(averaging 3.3 million viewers per week this season)
to the vaunted Thursday 10 p.m. time period (former home of ER
and Hill Street Blues) was one of the upfront’s most head-scratching
moves both symbolically and financially, given that Thursday remains
the most important night for advertisers.

But, says one industry exec, “The Voice hides all blemishes. Like for
many years with Fox, American Idol’s numbers covered up all those gaping
holes in their schedule. And NBC is having that luxury this year.”

While the short-term gain of running The Voice in the fall is great,
the key will be whether the show’s ratings will be stunted in its spring
cycle as a result of its first yearlong run.

“Whatever impact
there’s going to be of
running two arcs and
stretching it out two
nights, I think you’ll
probably get a better
comparison of it in January,”
Adgate says.

“It’s always a concern,”
Bader admits of
possible viewer fatigue.
He adds the network
is not set on doing two
cycles of The Voice every
year. “We’ll see how it does when it comes back in the spring,” he says.

Patience Is a Virtue

For now, The Voice has given NBC something it desperately needs—a
platform to launch new scripted hits. While NBC has taken creative
gambles in recent seasons with well-reviewed shows such as Prime Suspect
and Awake, it previously lacked a strong lead-in audience.

“When you’re launching a new show, especially one like ours that’s
a little off the beaten path…you really need a strong lead-in to be able
to bring viewers to your show,” says Eric Kripke, executive producer
of Revolution.

Producers likewise praise NBC Entertainment chairman Bob
Greenblatt and president Jen Salke for fostering an environment
where creative talent wants to come to work, and bringing a renewed
patience to the network.

“You don’t feel that sort of fear in the halls driving decision-making
or buying decisions—you feel sort of patient confidence,” says Go On
executive producer Karey Nixon, who also produced last season’s shortlived
comedy Free
and has a development
deal at Universal
Television. “It does
feel like there’s patience
and faith in the building
for the first time
in a while, and that’s a
welcome environment
to sell your babies to.”

NBC’s climb from
No. 4 to No. 1 in the first two weeks of the
season this year, coupled
with double-digit declines year-over-year at CBS, Fox and ABC
mean that NBC could conceivably find itself out of fourth place in
the 2012-13 season, even without the Super Bowl.

“The 18-49 race is going to be really interesting this year,” says a
rival network executive. “It’s all close enough now where one or two
shows can lift you up or drag you down, especially if you have a
show that’s on three hours a week.”

While no one expects NBC to hold on to its current No. 1 ranking
through the winter, when it has to program without its other ratings
pillar, Sunday Night Football, the strong tracking of The Voice’s three
hours per week leaves open the possibility the network could remain
competitive for a fall victory in 18-49 ratings.

Bader says it’s too soon to predict the complexion of the schedule a
month from now, though he admits, “It’s nice to even be in a position
where people are asking that question.”

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