NBCU Hunts for Daytime Success

Station group mulls programming strategy

Afternoons are tough for almost every TV station, but NBC Universal's have had a particularly hard time.“We need to give our viewers a different set of things to react to,” says Jay Ireland, president of NBC Universal Television Stations and Network Operations. “People no longer come home at night to find out what happened all day. Everyone is losing viewers from 4 to 7 p.m. We need to figure out a way to keep them.”

King World's Oprah Winfrey Show is currently syndication's gold standard. “Anyone who doesn't have Oprah has issues in the afternoon,” says one syndication executive. “Wherever Oprah is, if you don't have her, you are losing against her. And Judge Judy doesn't get the premium advertisers like Oprah does.”

Years ago, NBCU passed on its chance to renew CBS Paramount's Dr. Phil and hang onto the second-best news lead-in in the business. Like Oprah, Phil is expensive. But while it brings scads of viewers into stations' early-fringe and access newscasts, NBCU says the benefit to its newscasts didn't make up for the show's hefty license fees.

Still, NBCU's attempt to fix afternoons with Warner Bros.' Ellen DeGeneres Show hasn't been wildly successful, with the 4 p.m. time slot on WNBC New York down 36% in households (but nearly equal among persons 18-49) compared with what it was doing last year with CBS Paramount's Judge Judy.

With nothing better on the roster for afternoons and with mornings filled with NBCU's Martha Stewart Show and soon Today's fourth hour, Ellen is likely to stay put come fall.

Still, with NBCU's own Megan Mullally and daytime drama Passions cancelled, NBCU has at least two hours to fill in the afternoons.

NBCU seems to be embracing the programming model of iVillage Live, a new show that is airing on the company's 10 owned-and-operated stations and two weeks ago was picked up by Belo's KONG, an independent in Seattle, and the New York Times' KFOR Oklahoma City.

The show, which originates from NBCU's Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., incorporates a multiplatform reach, leading viewers back and forth between their televisions and the iVillage Website, which NBCU bought last March for $600 million.

iVillage Live integrates advertisers into segments—so much so that Estee Lauder said in its fourth-quarter earnings report that, by creating weekly beauty segments for the show, it drew viewers to its e-commerce sites, helping to increase its online sales by double digits.

With so much in the mix, the ratings for iVillage Live aren't a good gauge of its success, says Ireland.

Even so, they leave something to be desired. In nine weeks on the air, the show is averaging a 0.6 rating/2 share in its time period, down 40% from its average lead-in and 50% from its year-ago time-period average.

Another option for NBCU is to put game shows on in the afternoon. The group is reportedly talking to Program Partners about picking up Merv Griffin's new game, Let's Play Crossroads, and Deal or No Deal remains in development for fall 2008, even though there's still no host.

The station group could also focus more on local news.

“I am all about controlling one's own destiny,” says Bill Hague, senior VP at consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates. “If I had my choice and I didn't own Dr. Phil or Oprah, I'd look at expanding my news.”