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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.
NBC’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 On 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).
But 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 Voice. 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 Fire 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 Agents 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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