Wait Til This Year, Say NBC Affiliates

Network’s focus on quality, inherent star power may help it sustain primetime potency

Why This Matters

WHY THIS MATTERS
With so many holes to fill each fall, NBC’s upfront presentation perhaps has the most riding on it.

Taking in the whole of the NBC upfront slate each year is no minor feat. The network’s continued struggles to mint scripted hits, coupled with its efforts to program year-round, mean a long lineup of debutant programs to be teased in some grand ballroom (or, in last year’s case, the Javits Center). Yet amidst it all, NBC affiliates continue to put faith in the network, saying the emphasis on quality, NBC’s considerable star power and assets outside of prime programs, including the Olympics, make it a choice partner.

“I was really pleased with what NBC presented,” says Tom Tolar, president and general manager, WRCB Chattanooga. “You’d love to come out of this every year and say, we’ll have four or five or six hits. But I think the creative I saw was very good.”

Following the presentation, around 150 on the affiliate side met with the network. The station folks got updates on marketing, sports and news (Brian Williams’ situation is, of course, unresolved), and got assurances—from the highest level at NBCUniversal—that the network believes in the national-local model. “We talked about the future a lot, and how the partnership moves forward with the network and the affiliates aligned,” says Ralph Oakley, affiliates board chairman.

This Is the Dawning

One sticking point between the parties is the unique—at least for broadcast—distribution model for the crime drama Aquarius. NBC is making all 13 episodes available on premiere night May 28. Affiliates are mixed as to whether the strategy is in their best interest. “We probably don’t have total agreement with NBC on this issue,” says Oakley, choosing his words carefully. Another prominent affiliate figure admitted he was “nervous” about opening up the series for binge viewing.

Others see it differently. “Once they explained the rationale, we understood it,” says Jack Dempsey, VP and general manager of WCYB in Bristol, Va. “It’s a new world out there.”

The affiliates departed last year’s upfront presentation with considerable optimism too, buzzing about the drama Constantine and comedies such as A to Z, neither of which stuck on the schedule for long. In fact, Mysteries of Laura was the lone 2014-15 freshman to get a renewal. Those earning buzz among the latest crop include the Wesley Snipes gambling drama The Player, the Memento-esque FBI drama Blindspot and a remake of late-Aughts flash in the pan Heroes.

Several affiliates mention a sense of production quality that they feel is unsurpassed by rivals. “There’s a feeling to NBC programming in general that’s associated with quality,” says John Seabers, general manager at WOAI San Antonio.

Of course, the proof will be in the ratings. Veterans of numerous upfronts stress that a sizzle reel is just that—a greatest hits package designed to win over a crowd on a Monday morning in New York. But many affiliates believe NBC is on the right track. “All in all, it was very positive,” says Dempsey. “I did not pick up any sense that people were jaded.”

BIG STAGES, BIG PLANS IN THE BIG APPLE

While NBC affiliates had a whole slew of new shows to take in, the load over at ABC’s presentation was relatively light. Michael Devlin, affiliates board chairman, called that a “good sign. I think the consensus was that the whole ‘show,’ quote-unquote, was well done,” Devlin added. “Everything looked very, very good.”

The affiliates will meet in Southern California next week. On the agenda—the NFL wild card playoff game that will be simulcast on ESPN and ABC. “We’ll wait to see what the economics of that are,” said Devlin.

The CBS and Fox affiliates had their own meetings in New York, too. The Fox stations have had their issues with the network, but the strength of Empire, and a seemingly promising new slate, elicited a sense of bonhomie. The Fox affiliates board met with the network May 12. “It was a very, very positive meeting,” said Jeff Rosser, chairman. “[Cochairs] Dana Walden and Gary Newman did a fantastic job on their first upfront presentation.”

Affiliates dug the comedies Grandfathered and The Grinder.

“The board is very optimistic,” said Rosser, “about the fall schedule, the continuation of Empire and the shows Fox is building around it.”