NBC's Zucker outlines new approach to TV programming

LAS VEGAS (Hollywood Reporter) - NBC Universal aims to shake up the way it does business, particularly with its pilot development and “upfront” presentations, president and CEO Jeff Zucker said Tuesday.

Jeff Zucker, president and the Chief Executive of NBC Universal arrives at the Paley Center for Media Los Angeles Gala honoring NBC's Zucker and Dick Ebersol in Los Angeles November 12, 2007. NBC Universal aims to shake up the way it does business, particularly with its pilot development and "upfront" presentations, president and CEO Jeff Zucker said Tuesday. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

In his keynote speech at the opening session of the National Association of Television Program Executives’ 2008 Conference and Exhibition (NATPE), Zucker said NBC will take more projects straight to series, without pilots; green-light five or six pilots a year; sign fewer development deals; and likely forgo its glitzy May “upfront” presentation in favor of meeting with advertisers one on one.

“We must acknowledge that a significant part of the industry is under pressure and needs to change,” Zucker told a packed ballroom at the Mandalay Bay Resort. “We’ve needed to do this for a few years, but there was no real sense of urgency.”

He said factors including the state of the economy and the writers’ strike have speeded up the time frame in which NBC is making these changes.

“Broadcasters can no longer spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on pilots that don’t see the light of day or on upfront presentations or on deals that don’t pay off,” Zucker said. “And we can’t ignore international opportunities, VOD (video-on-demand) or the Web.”

He said pilots are “stand-alone mini-movies” that cost as much as $10 million each to make and “are not even close to what the series will look and feel like.” To that end, NBC will order fewer pilots and start ordering more projects straight to series -- “those that our executives really believe in” -- similar to the model for reality shows.

He noted that NBC Universal’s cable network USA ordered five pilots during the past two years, four of which made it to series and two of which became the top-rated new cable shows of 2006 (“Psych”) and 2007 (“Burn Notice”). Yet none of the new scripted series that have debuted on the broadcast networks so far this season can be considered successful, and only two in the previous season -- NBC’s “Heroes” and ABC’s “Brother & Sisters” -- were hits, he said.

“It’s not about making less programs; it’s about making less waste,” Zucker said.

He added that NBC is not aiming to get out of the scripted-program business, noting that too much “downstream revenue” -- from syndication, video, etc. -- would be lost.

Zucker added that NBC is moving toward a year-round programming schedule, where series green-lights and premieres take place throughout the calendar year and not just based on a September-to--May season.

Zucker admitted that the Peacock will be “on its own” doing this at first but said its success would be followed by other networks.

“This system has been around for 20, 30, 40 years and needs to evolve,” he said. “We’re willing to make chances and learn from our mistakes as we go.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter