Big NBC slate may hurt new shows' chance to score

Fri Jun 29, 2012 7:59am EDT

* NBC plans to heavily promote fall shows during Olympics

* Large number of new shows makes it tougher for breakouts

* Olympics promos do not guarantee a show's success

By Liana B. Baker and Lisa Richwine

June 29 (Reuters) - NBC plans to premiere 16 new shows in prime time starting this fall, by far the biggest crop of launches for any network for the next TV season and one of the biggest new slates in recent years.

The large number of new shows is a function of the network's status as the ratings cellar-dweller among the big four broadcast networks - the others are CBS, News Corp's Fox, and Walt Disney Co's ABC. But the amount of new shows also has the potential to overwhelm viewers.

"You are dividing your attention so many more ways. It's like having 10 children instead of two. How do they all get attention?" said media industry consultant Adam Armbruster of Eckstein, Summers, Armbruster & Co.

NBC, owned by Comcast Corp, is airing six new shows in the fall. The 10 other new shows it ordered will debut through early next year. This compares with third-place network ABC, which is adding 10 new shows to its lineup. First-place CBS and second-place Fox will add six and five newcomers, respectively.

Given the number of entertainment options vying for viewers' time - from television and movies to videogames and online video - marketing is critical. Properly promoting a new show to make it stand out from the crowd is almost as important as the show itself. In this regard, NBC has a strong platform to leverage in the Olympic games, which the network will air over the course of about three weeks beginning on July 27.

"You'll see during those 17 days we are going to try to set up the fall launch on NBC prime time as well as we can," said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke during a media event on Wednesday.

But that will not come cheap. For starters - while it is a common practice - taking up air time for in-house promotions during a large event like the Olympics means NBC is likely eating in to advertising inventory it could have sold to someone else, said Steve Ridge, president of the media strategy group at Frank N. Magid Associates. The network is, in essence, buying advertising with its promotional investment just like any other advertiser would, Ridge said.

Beyond that, NBC will have to choose between spending equally to promote each program or devoting the bulk of its marketing dollars to a few programs and hope others break out, industry analysts said.

"No one has an unlimited bucket of cash for promotion," Armbruster said.

Len Fogge, NBC Entertainment's president of marketing, said promotions for new shows airing during the Olympics will not cut into any advertising dollars and NBC is not taking up any more promotional time this year than it has in past Olympics. And Burke noted during the Wednesday event that NBC is on track to generate $100 million more in ad revenue than it did during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but could not guarantee the network would make money this year from the games.

Last season, NBC spent $33 million to promote eight new shows, excluding advertising it ran on its own networks, according to Kantar Media. But one former NBC executive put the figure even higher, saying that in recent years NBC has spent around $50 million annually to launch its fall schedule.

Fogge declined to comment on the network's marketing budget and whether it would spend more than a year ago.

"We think it'll be adequate to amass the impressions we need to get people aware of our shows," Fogge said in an interview, adding that the network will also steer viewers to Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook for longer looks at its new shows.

After pitching its fall shows to advertisers in May, NBC collected $1.8 billion in commercial time, the smallest amount of advertising commitments from media buyers during the recently concluded "upfront" selling season.

Building a network from NBC's spot "is an extremely tough experience. It's a tough place to be," said Garth Ancier, former BBC Worldwide America president and a former programming chief at NBC and Fox. Moving back to a competitive position "is a multi-year experience."

OLYMPICS ADVANTAGE?

After Comcast acquired control of NBC in a $30 billion deal in 2010, the company chose Bob Greenblatt, who earned a reputation as a programming Svengali with shows like "Dexter" and "Weeds" at pay-TV network Showtime, to rebuild the network. At NBC, Greenblatt inherited only two legitimate hits: singing competition "The Voice" and "Sunday Night Football." That left him with plenty of holes to fill and few places to reach a large number of viewers to promote new entries.

That's where the Olympics comes into play.

While NBC lost money broadcasting the 2010 Olympics and said it may not turn a profit in London, the games provide an "unmatched platform" for promoting new programs and creating buzz, said Ridge, from Frank N. Magid Associates.

In 2008, the summer Olympics broadcast averaged 27.7 million viewers in prime time, or about 20 million more viewers than the 7.3 million NBC drew on average in prime time last season, according to Nielsen. Its most-watched show, "Sunday Night Football," averaged 21.2 million viewers per broadcast.

One gambit Greenblatt is taking to capitalize on the increased viewership NBC will receive from the Olympics is to premiere during the games commercial-free episodes of "Animal Practice," a show featuring a monkey that takes place in a veterinary clinic, and "Go On," starring former "Friends" star Matthew Perry as a sports broadcaster in group therapy.

But some media buyers are not convinced the network picked the most appealing shows for the older audience that normally tunes in for the games.

Initial feedback from advertisers on "Animal Practice" is lukewarm, said Steve Kalb, director of video investment at the Mediahub division of Mullen, a unit of Interpublic Group . And Perry has not clicked with audiences since "Friends" - his last NBC show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" was canceled, as was his sitcom "Mr. Sunshine" on ABC after just three months.

A strong Olympics presence does not always equal ratings gold for new shows either. NBC has been using the Olympics to promote new shows since it began broadcasting the games in 1988 and many of them failed to gain traction. It filled the 2008 telecasts of the Beijing summer games with promos for the Christian Slater spy drama "My Own Worst Enemy," which lasted only nine episodes before being canceled. In 2004, the network heavily promoted the critically panned Friends-spinoff "Joey," which got the axe after two seasons.

Shows promoted during the Olympics get an "initial sampling but it's not an indicator of longevity," said Brian Hughes, senior vice president of audience analysis at MagnaGlobal Intelligence, a unit of Interpublic Group.

"Ultimately, a show will live or die based on its own merits," he said.

NBC said the Vancouver Olympics gave a boost to two shows in 2010, "Parenthood," and the now-canceled reality show "Who Do You Think You Are?"

The latter show's cancellation lends credence to the notion that even if a new show manages to build buzz and generate strong ratings during the Olympics, the momentum could fade by the time it returns to its regular programming slot after the games. "Animal Practice," for example, won't debut in its regular time slot until Sept. 26, more than a month after it airs following the Olympics' closing ceremonies on Aug. 12.

While NBC said the two comedies it is airing during the games are anchors for the fall, the network also is likely to give promotional time to other shows, including "The New Normal" from "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy about a gay couple and their surrogate, and a comedy created by late-night host Jimmy Fallon called "Guys with Kids."

Though it is debuting 16 new shows during the year, NBC hedged its risk by ordering half-seasons for many of them and premiering some in the fall and others early next year. That strategy "cuts down on the number of repeats, which tend to have lower ratings," said Brad Adgate, director of research at Horizon Media.

While NBC will face a challenge to make new shows stand out from the pack, media buyers say it had few other options but to order so many shows, throw money at them and then hope something sticks.

"Even if one or two shows end up working for them, it will make a huge difference," said MagnaGlobal's Hughes.

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