XFL, sweeps top NBC affiliates agenda

Prime time SNL, expanded Will & Grace, Just Shoot Me are set

NBC is proceeding with a plan to air Saturday Night Live
in prime time on Saturday nights during the XFL season (which starts Feb. 3), but the network has promised affiliates that, next year, it will air two live XFL games, including one in prime time for West Coast affiliates.

That was the word that came out of a half-day meeting in Las Vegas between NBC executives and members of the network's affiliate board of governors that took place Sunday, Jan.21, on the eve of NATPE.

The following day, the network also finalized its Thursday-night February-sweeps strategy that has sitcoms Will & Grace
and Just Shoot Me
expanding to 40 minutes. Earlier, NBC announced that the producers of Friends
had agreed to produce four 40-minute episodes during the sweeps period to help counter CBS' decision to put Survivor
on Thursdays at 8 p.m. against Friends.

For the first two weeks of the sweeps, Saturday Night Live
will produce 20-minute skits for the 8:40-9 p.m. time period. On Feb. 15, the 20-minute Friends
lead-out will be an outtakes show of zany moments on the set, with interviews of the cast conducted by Conan O'Brien. On Feb. 22, 40-minute episodes of Will & Grace
and Just Shoot Me
will follow Friends.

The affiliate board and network executives also finalized an agreement that converts the NBC News Channel, the affiliate news-feed service, into a 50-50 partnership between the affiliates and the network. Affiliates have financially supported the News Channel in the past but will now be contractually obligated to cover half its costs. The Charlotte, N.C.-based service is designed as a break-even business, although it has "made a couple of bucks," said Randy Falco, president, NBC Television Network.

Executives from both sides have also agreed to form joint committees to address such issues as advertising sales, cost-cutting ideas and the utilization of the Web.

A majority of affected West Coast stations has agreed to go along with this year's XFL plan, said Falco. Only a few stations have yet to inform the network of their decision, but Falco expects that they will go along as well.

Belo Television President Jack Sander, chairman of the NBC affiliate board of governors, agreed. "I think, by and large, the stations on the West Coast would have preferred coming out of the chutes with their own game but the vast majority will say I'm going to roll the dice and go with them."

According to Falco, NBC is doing just one live game this season because it needs to focus on the production innovations the XFL is adding to its brand of football. "It's so technologically advanced [NBC's XFL production team] didn't feel like they could do as good a job on the second game as they could on the first."

West Coast stations will air prime time access programming in prime time from 8 to 9:30 p.m. and then air SNL
live from 9:30 to 11 p.m.

XFL officials gave an update at the NBC meeting, reporting that the league has sold 60% of the available national advertising time for the first season. NBC affiliates and owned stations have 24 30-second units to sell locally in each XFL game. Sander said it was challenging because the stations have to target advertisers not usually on their radar screen: advertisers seeking a young male demographic.