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NBC, in recovery mode, returns to a more traditional ad sales event

The network offers previews of its new shows in New York after dealing in recent years with such disruptions as a writers strike and the fiasco of moving Jay Leno to prime time.

May 18, 2010|By Meg James, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York —

When NBC unveiled its new fall schedule to advertisers in New York on Monday, it did something different this time: It previewed clips from new shows.

It has been a brutal three years for NBC, marred by the writers guild strike, the chaotic reign of former program chief Ben Silverman and the fiasco of moving Jay Leno to prime time. Along with the travails, NBC pared back its annual "upfront" presentation, the week in spring when the networks take turns unveiling their new fall schedules to advertisers.

Now, Leno is back in late night and NBC is restocking the 10 p.m. time period with dramas, and the network again is staging a more traditional upfront.

The repair job isn't coming cheap. The network spent 40% more than usual — about $50 million — to develop next season's slate and plug the gaping holes in its prime-time schedule with eight new shows.

Jeff Gaspin, the No. 2 executive at NBC, even found an opening to make light of the turmoil. Noting his elevation last year to oversee entertainment programming, Gaspin said he was honored to be given the chance because "a job like this only comes around every eight months or so."

NBC's New York presentation to advertisers was designed to signal restored stability and distance itself from all the dire warnings in recent years about how network TV's economic model was broken and how a revolution was needed to position it in the digital age.

Gaspin was conveying the message that several things had changed recently to suggest that the network model perhaps wasn't as irreparably damaged as previously stated.

Cable companies are now paying some broadcasters to retransmit signals, injecting a new revenue stream into the business. And the left-for-dead advertising market has sprung back to life, with some analysts estimating that ad sales for all the broadcast networks could be up about 15% this year.

Not lost on the upbeat NBC executives is the realization that within a year, the peacock network could have new owners. If the federal government approves the merger, Comcast Corp. would take over majority control of NBC Universal. The current owner, General Electric Co., would become the minority partner.

On Monday, Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts attended NBC's presentation but kept a low profile. He and his deputy, Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke, who would run NBC Universal, are trying to deflect the impression that they are low-cost cable guys. They've been quietly putting out word that they believe profit will only result from investment in programming — developing new prime-time comedies and dramas.

In the past, NBC would unveil its prime-time schedule punctuated by the Rockettes from the Art Deco splendor of Radio City Music Hall.

Then, two years ago, the network once famed for quality programming owing to shows such as "Law and Order" and "Friends" adopted a carnival-like "NBC Experience," complete with American Gladiator wrestlers sparring in a ring. Last year, it dispensed with the upfront altogether and supplanted it with the "infront," a series of small, private meetings with advertisers.

This year, NBC held its upfront at the less-glamorous Hilton Hotel, only a few blocks away from the network's New York headquarters.

In an opening clip, NBC star Alec Baldwin, who plays Jack Donaghy, the head of NBC East Coast Television, on the network's self-lampooning comedy "30 Rock," noted the switch in locations.

"It's not that we couldn't afford Radio City," Baldwin deadpanned, followed by a long pause and a shifty look. "It's being painted."

Advertisers, who have seen countless proclamations by networks promising that this season's development was the best in memory, were being cautious.

"We went from the upfront, to the infront, to 'we'll see,' " said Irwin Gotlieb, a veteran ad buyer and prominent Madison Avenue executive.

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