NBC's Harbert Turns Upfront Stage Into Pulpit

Where did Ted Harbert’s boldness come from? Since Comcast put him in charge of NBC’s broadcasting arm, he’s seemed more interested in making sure the company’s 10 local stations have more resources, including news helicopters. Important, but not controversial. 

Yes, in January, he criticized the previous NBCUniversal management for under-investing in the station business. But, otherwise, he’s seemed rather quiet. His Wikipedia profile includes no mention of anything done at NBC yet.

Yet, he threw some solid punches at Dish Network and Nielsen on Monday. More notably, he launched what promises to be a very contentious public debate on Madison Avenue: whether to adopt C7 ratings.

“It’s time to consider moving to a C7 metric,” Harbert said at the NBC upfront presentation, according to the New York Times.

Now, on industry panels, questions about a shift in the ratings standard from C3 will play a prominent role. The media will be on it.

Buyers will resist fiercely a move that ostensibly has no benefit for them. Networks will argue that if buyers want more premium content to advertise in, they need to pay more to facilitate the R&D process.

Upfront presentations are usually negotiation-free zones. Network sales chiefs thank advertisers for their business. New can’t-miss programming is touted. Advertisers and network executives are supposed to leave inspired and appreciative of the business they’re in, before sitting across the table in upfront deal-making.

The C7 issue promises to be a third rail. Harbert, Chairman of NBC Broadcasting, may have raised the matter at Radio City Music Hall thinking a case can be made that a new C7 ratings system benefits both sides.

But, there’s a lot of fighting to go before a consensus coalesces around that. A whiff of how a prominent debate is set to ensue came not long after Harbert’s proposal.

“While that is great for NBC, is it good for our clients?” leading media buying agency SMGx tweeted.

It was surprising a trial balloon wasn’t floated by NBCUniversal research chief Alan Wurtzel first at a lower-profile gathering such as an Advertising Research Foundation academic-y conference.

But, Harbert suggested that DVR-enabled ad skipping has become so prevalent that networks aren’t being paid adequately for the audiences they are delivering. And, advertisers are getting a lot for free.

The current ratings system uses a C3 number that adds in commercial viewing over a three-day period after broadcast. C7 would extend that to seven days, giving networks a chance to accumulate more rating points to sell.

A network that argues C3 gives advertisers some free exposure holds a lot of water. As more people watch shows outside a three-day window, ads that still relevant and timely are being seen and going un-rated.

When the industry moved to the compromise C3 standard a few years back, there was significant give and take on both the buy and sell sides. Buyers got an element of commercial ratings, rather than the decades-old program ratings. Networks were able to get paid for some DVR-enabled viewing.

Where’s the potential middle ground this time? One possibility would be what might be called C7/MBM.

Current ratings measure the average of all commercial minutes in a particular program. The seven-day time period would benefit networks, while minute-by-minute (MBM) ratings would give advertisers a better sense of how many people watched their individual spots.

While the timing of Harbert’s lobbying was curious, give him credit for bringing some substance to an upfront fandango. He turned his appearance into a State of the Union-type opportunity to make proposals and launch some barbs.

Besides the C7 declaration, he again blasted Dish Network’s new DVR functionality allowing a viewer to skip all commercials in a network show when watching the day after broadcast. Looking to get advertisers to share his anger, he said: “This is an insult to our joint investment in programming and I’m against it.”

(Hopefully for him then, Comcast won't launch a similar system if it feels it is losing too many customers to Dish because they want like the transformative ad-zapper.)

Harbert also said NBC would continue to press for a study cross-platform measurement solution as more content is being consumed on laptops and mobile devices. Again, he sought to advance a win-win spirit, arguing advertisers and networks will gain -- advertisers with increased insight into ROI, NBC with more money to make up for its content expenses.

Executives at all networks largely seem to dismiss the multiple cross-platform measurement initiatives Nielsen has launched. Maybe rightfully, they focus on the need for more progress.

“We just can’t wait and wait some more for Nielsen to do it,” Harbert said.

Harbert concluded his upfront appearance, according to the Times, by saying: “Thank you for putting up with my sermon. I think I just proved that I’m the worst opening act ever.”

Au contraire. The stuff about a WNBC news truck stuck in Jersey unable to cover a fire in Queens is important, but far less interesting. If NBC's new fall shows are as attention-grabbing, the network will be in good shape.

Tags: television
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1 comment about "NBC's Harbert Turns Upfront Stage Into Pulpit".
  1. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2013ac.com network , May 14, 2012 at 6:29 p.m.
    I'm just a TV-watching consumer, with no dog in this hunt. But even I see the stupidity of Dish's DVR ad-skipping functionality. While I'll often fast-forward through ads with my DTV DVR, at least that's an active and not passive choice. Having to strangle the goose that lays the network's golden eggs with my bare hands is obviously better than pushing a button to do it, at least from the network's point of view.