Ending Tradition, NBC Dismisses Fall Debuts

TV Arts

Ending Tradition, NBC Dismisses Fall Debuts 

Published: February 20, 2008
It soon may be time to retire the phrase “fall television season.”

NBC Universal took a big step toward undoing one of the television 
industry’s oldest traditions by announcing Tuesday that it would move to 
a year-round schedule of staggered program introductions. The move is 
intended to appeal to advertisers, who crave fresh content to keep 
viewers tuned in. 

And if it succeeds — and leads other broadcast networks to shift from 
their focus on a mass introduction of new shows — it could alter an 
American cultural cycle that extends all the way back to the days of 
radio, when families gathered around the Philco every September, as the 
school year began, to sample the new entertainment choices.

NBC plans to announce a 52-week schedule in April, a month before ABC 
and CBS will unveil their fall lineups at splashy presentations known as 
upfronts. The decision means that NBC will be committing to a new lineup 
of shows earlier than any of its competitors, while also inviting 
advertisers to build marketing plans around specific shows and perhaps 
to integrate brands and products into the plots of the shows themselves.

“We absolutely think this is going to change the industry,” said Michael 
Pilot, the head of sales for NBC. That was one of the goals cited by 
Jeff Zucker, the president and chief executive of NBC Universal, in 
comments he has made recently about how the strike by Hollywood writers 
could create opportunities to change some of the ways networks do 

The fall television season has been under assault on many fronts, from 
the many cable channels that introduce new shows whenever they find it 
convenient, to individual series like ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” that made 
their debuts in odd months like March. 

Viewers have already become accustomed to a spring lineup from Fox, for 
instance, and for fresh slates of reality shows during the summer. 

But the move by NBC Universal, a property of General Electric and 
Vivendi, represents a particularly bold stroke by a network with the 
size and clout to move markets. After it announces a list of programs in 
April, NBC plans to meet with big advertising clients in several cities, 
followed by a different sort of presentation in May that will encompass 
all the NBC Universal properties, including cable channels like Bravo, 
USA and CNBC. 

What that event will not include is a special introduction of the fall 
prime-time schedule, which NBC has held for years in Radio City Music 
Hall and as its broadcast network competitors still intend to do this 
year. NBC is looking for a different site for the presentation because 
the Music Hall is not appropriate for the plans it has for that day.

But the day will include an introduction of the yearlong programming 
plans for the press as well as a party for advertising clients that will 
include some NBC stars. “We still want to keep some of that sizzle,” Mr. 
Pilot said. Marc Graboff, the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, said, 
“This is all about creating a two-way conversation with advertisers.”

Senior executives at media agencies greeted the NBC decision with mild 
to enthusiastic praise. “It’s a step in the right direction,” said Aaron 
Cohen, executive vice president at Horizon Media in New York. “Something 
like this was bound to happen.”

“I applaud it,” said Charlie Rutman, chief executive for North American 
operations at MPG in New York, a media agency owned by Havas, because 
“the idea of a constant stream of new programming is good.”

Shari Anne Brill, senior vice president and director for programming at 
another New York media agency, Carat, described the NBC plan as “a smart 
idea,” likening it to steps that Fox Broadcasting has tried in the past, 
announcing several schedules for a season, with new shows coming on the 
air in September, November and January and in the spring.

Asked whether the other broadcast networks may adopt a year-round 
programming schedule, Mr. Cohen replied: “NBC is the test bed. If buyer 
reaction is good, it will get considered by the others.”

The idea of a 52-week schedule is not really new. Most networks now have 
programming scattered throughout the year with specific shows set aside 
for summer, like “Big Brother” on CBS (though it was used in the regular 
season this year because of the strike) and others for midyear like “24” 
and “American Idol” on Fox and “Lost” on ABC.

But NBC intends to give advertisers a much earlier look at its plans for 
the entire year. That will presumably make it easier to match 
advertisers to specific shows, an idea that is growing in popularity. 
Networks are looking for ways to keep clients paying, even as ratings 
diminish and programs are replayed on digital recorders with commercials 

Ben Silverman, the other co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, who will 
travel the country with Mr. Graboff making the presentations to 
advertisers, has been an advocate of linking advertisers to shows. He 
made a deal with Ford Motor Company, for example, to supply the car used 
in a remake of the 1980s series “Knight Rider.” A version of that aired 
Sunday night on NBC as a made-for-TV movie, and Mr. Silverman said 
Tuesday that its ratings success makes it a likely addition to NBC’s 
schedule when it is announced in April.

As a result of the new plan, Mr. Silverman said, “NBC will have more 
original programming year-round than anyone else.”

The lineup also may receive early input from advertisers who are given 
an earlier look at it. That may help both parties, Mr. Graboff said. He 
cited as a cautionary tale the network’s experience with “Kidnapped,” a 
show from a season ago.

“That’s a perfect example,” Mr. Graboff said. “The pilot cost $7 million 
to produce. We put it on sale to advertisers in May, and they ran for 
the hills. If we had been able to sit down and have a two-way 
conversation about them and we told they we had a show about a 13-year-
old boy who is kidnapped for the entire season, they would have told us, 
‘Good for you, but we’re not putting our clients in it.’ ”

But Mr. Graboff said this did not mean NBC would base its programming on 
input from advertisers. “The ultimate decision is going to be made by 
program executives who believe in the shows,” he said.

One potential benefit of the change, according to Gene DeWitt, chairman 
of DeWitt Media in New York, is a solution to advertisers’ annual 
quandary. The last three months of the year are the most important for 
many marketers — particularly retailers and automakers — but under the 
current system many of the broadcast shows they are offered then are new 
and untested.

If more shows are brought out earlier in the calendar year, he said, 
“you’d have a track record of their performance.”

“We’d have more reliable rating information,” he added, “so we won’t be 
going into the fourth quarter blind.”

A 52-week broadcast schedule may make it more difficult to track the 
hits and flops, Mr. DeWitt said, but “it’s the way of the world today — 
things move faster, and we all have to keep up.”
Hopefully this will mean more original dramas during the summer, though I 
doubt it.

It's really about time they do this. There's no point in having slow times 
in the schedule which allow viewers to find other programs to get interested 
in. And it's rediculous to extend a season with repeats--it only leads to 
loosing viewers.

Of course I still expect the best stuff will come out in the fall.