Bob Greenblatt, NBC entertainment chairman, boiled NBC's nearly two-hour upfront presentation down for the attention deprived: The network is bullish on comedies. "If you take one thing out of here today," he told the Radio City Music Hall congregation, "it's that we have real comedy strength that expands the reach of the network next year."
Several affiliates agreed, noting that the comedies they caught a glimpse of in the presentation, such as Go On and Animal Practice, stood out for them. "The network has showed continual growth," said John Cardenas, president and general manager of WTHR Indianapolis afterwards. "The comedies, along with [drama] Chicago Fire, have great potential to help primetime and help our lead in to late news."
The affiliates also hope another interesting scheduling move, shifting Rock Center With Brian Williams to Thursdays at 10 p.m., helps their lucrative late news. Williams has considerable good will among the affiliates, who raved about the recent anniversary special on the killing of bin Laden. But the show has not delivered ratings, and moves to what has been a revolving door for NBC; rookies Prime Suspect, The Firm and Awake all failed this year on Thursday at 10.
Veteran general managers recall when 10 p.m. Thursday on NBC was one of the most prestigious addresses on TV. Affiliate managers termed the Rock Center move, coming out of a comedy block, "interesting" and "surprising."
"I wasn't even sure that would get renewed," said Dale Woods, president and general manager at WHO Des Moines, who watched the presentation from Iowa. "I think it's in an even tougher spot [on Thursday]. If it struggled on Wednesday night, how much more will it struggle against more difficult competition?"
Woods was willing to give NBC the benefit of the doubt. "Obviously they see something there as an opportunity," he noted.
Williams' news hour debuted in the fall on Mondays and shifted to Wednesdays earlier this year. Some affiliates felt Rock Center just needs a consistent slot to call its own, and begin to build an audience. "The quality is good and getting better," says Steve Wasserman, vice president and general manager of WPTV West Palm Beach. "If they leave it alone, I think it will be a very good lead in to late news."
But it was comedies, such as Matthew Perry's Go On, the veterinarian-centered laffer Animal Practice and the Jimmy Fallon-produced Guys With Kids, that had affiliates talking. "I think they're spending the kind of money you need to spend," said Pat Dalbey, president and general manager at WLEX Lexington. "They're not sitting around doing nothing. They're putting a lot of resources to work."
Comcast was largely given a pass in the 2011-2012 season, inheriting a tall order in turning around primetime. The affiliates will not be so patient when next fall rolls around. Some affiliates privately grumbled about the network boasting that it was tied for third in prime, believing the network should hold off on the boasts until it's in a better place.
The affiliates met with network brass, including NBC Broadcasting Chairman Ted Harbert, May 14 in New York. Jordan Wertlieb, executive VP of Hearst Television, takes over affiliates board chairman duties from Scripps' Brian Lawlor after the meeting.
Those on NBC's affiliates side watched the presentation with the guarded optimism they employ each year around this time. "There were some encouraging signs," says Perry Sook, president and CEO of Nexstar Broadcasting. "Time will tell."