NBC To Media Buyers: Sorry About Last Year!

NBC's upfront presentation on Monday afternoon was part fall season preview, part mea culpa.

In fact, network executives and talent hardly missed an opportunity at self-deprecation, all of it focusing on the network's falling from its first-place perch among the major nets since losing ratings juggernaut "Friends." After more than a decade of reigning, NBC executives felt it was futile, and would be insulting to buyers, to try to put a positive spin on the inescapable reality that the network had fallen to last place among the four major networks with adult viewers 18-49, although executives did at times point out that many shows did attract more upscale viewers--those who earn more than $75,000 annually.

Still, several media buyers noted that while there doesn't seem to be another "Friends" among the one new comedy, three new dramas, and two new reality shows, there did seem to be some promise. And while a few media buyers considered NBC executives' apologia "effusive" and "relentless," most conceded that it was likely what the buying community as a whole wanted to hear.

The presentation at Radio City Music Hall in New York City kicked off with "Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update segment anchors, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who started poking fun at the network as "NBC, the only network that needs to remind you to look at the television." Also, after taking a few shots at media buyers--the pregnant Fey called out to Bill Cella, the chairman of Interpublic Group's Magna Global USA, saying they needed to have a talk since "I met you at that Scrubs' Christmas party six months ago," as she pointed to her tumescent belly.

Other lines pointed to the troubled Thursday night sitcom and "Friends" spin-off "Joey," which is returning, although the network was "sorry for its initially inconsistent performance," noted Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment. In noting the prevalence of shows broadcast in high definition, Poehler quipped, "You can actually see ["Joey" star] Matt LeBlanc's panic!"

Fey and Poehler ended their act with a slight dig at cable as well as their network by cheekily imploring buyers to "Buy your ad time on NBC because out of 100 channels, we're number four! "

As the "Weekend Update" desk descended into the orchestra pit, Keith Turner, president, NBC Universal sales and marketing, noted that the recent anniversary of NBC and Universal's merger was not exactly celebratory.

"This merger business isn't easy--the mixing of cultures and trying to find ways to capitalize on all that is being brought together is hard," Turner said. "But we believe in synergy and in making this work--by the way, the movie 'Cinderella Man' starring Russell Crowe will be in theaters soon."

Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Universal Television Group, took the stage next. Even more unprecedented than the serial acts of contrition was his reference to other networks' successes.

"We're not where we want to be," Zucker said. "For the first time in over 10 years, we do not have a fantastic story to tell. You can't lose a dominant show like 'Friends' and not expect that to have an impact. It's been a terrible year for the network. But [ABC's] 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Medium' and [Fox Broadcasting's] 'House' have all attracted more 18- to-49-year-old viewers than cable--and that's good for all of us."

He also stressed that the schedule for the 2005/2006 season will find a network more focused on its "core."

"We're only introducing six shows, and we only need that one red-hot show that will make a difference of five-tenths of a ratings point--that's really all we need," Zucker said. "Because when you take out all the sports programming--and that's really the way you buy time--we have really achieved network parity. There is not much separating the networks in terms of ratings points."

At the after party across the street at Rockefeller Center, Zucker reiterated his point, saying, "What is it I wanted media buyers to take away [from my presentation]? Simply that the perception is worse than the reality."

Following Zucker was Reilly, who starred in an upfront special parody of "Apocalypse Now," ("I love the smell of pilots in the morning..."), as he unveiled the new shows.

As for the new shows, producer Jerry Bruckheimer is bringing the drama "E-Ring," a suspense drama set in the Pentagon and starring Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper; another drama, "Fathom," is described as an action-adventure about a mysterious new form of undersea life; and "Inconceivable," a nighttime soap, is set in a fertility clinic.

Coming out of the "unscripted" box are Martha Stewart's version of "The Apprentice' and "Three Wishes," a sort of "extreme makeover" writ larger, featuring country singer Amy Grant coming to small towns to grant the wishes.

The sole new comedy on the fall schedule is "My Name is Earl," starring Jason Lee (of the films "Almost Famous" and "Chasing Amy"), as a trailer park ne'er do well who has taken "one too many wrong turns on the highway of life but is now determined to make amends."

Two other comedies were unveiled as well: "Four Kings," from David Kohan and Max Mutchnick (the producers of "Will & Grace," which in the words of its starring cast members, is "probably" in its final season), and "Thick and Thin," about a "once overweight woman who embarks on a new journey as a fit and newly single woman."

Because the star of the hit "Scrubs," Zach Braff, is off making a feature film, the show will not be on the fall schedule, but will "hopefully return" midseason, Reilly said.

As for media buyer reaction, most gave the nod to "Three Wishes."

"It looks like a good show, it has broad appeal, it has a positive message, and that's what people are looking for right now," said Steve Farella, the president and CEO of Targetcast.

As to the various ways network execs sought to say "sorry," two media buyers agreed that it was a suitable show of humility.

Still, a third veteran media buyer couldn't help but compare it to the good old days.

"I can remember going to these things and even if the network was dead-last, they'd say they're number one in this area or that, and we'd just laugh about it," the media buyer said. "But still, even these expressions of contrition were all about show biz. Media buyers don't really care about that. What they care is if you say 'I'm sorry' through pricing."

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