Peacock to freshen sked with original fare

With ratings for repeats headed south faster than the Dow, NBC will try to pump up its quotient of original programming next summer by launching a handful of scripted entertainment series during the warm-weather months.

Peacock entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker is expected to unveil his summer 2003 plans this morning when he meets journos gathered for NBC’s portion of the semiannual Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena. In addition to the Peacock’s now-trademark gonzo reality skeins, Zucker told Daily Variety he will launch “two or three scripted entertainment series” next summer, ordering between eight and 13 episodes of each skein.

Nonfiction fare such as “Fear Factor,” “Big Brother” and this summer’s cultural phenom “American Idol” have become summer staples for the nets — relatively low-cost projects that help webs keep the lights on between May and September.

Nonfiction fans

But in recent years, the Big Four have largely sworn off developing scripted series specifically for the summer. The pricetag has generally been too big, while the ratings — save for occasional flukes like “Northern Exposure” and “Melrose Place,” or original segs of existing skeins like “Beverly Hills, 90210″ — have been disappointing.

The difference now, according to Zucker: Viewers are becoming indifferent to summer reruns. Except for CBS — which is doing just fine with repeats of hits like “CSI,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “JAG” – the three other major nets are seeing double-digit declines for repeats vs. year-ago averages.

It’s become so bad that NBC and ABC have pulled almost all reruns of a few shows, including “Providence,” “Ed” and “NYPD Blue.”

Nets typically have used summer encores to amortize the high cost of original programming. A repeat of “ER,” for example, costs NBC nothing but pulls in a good chunk of ad revenue — thus helping to pay for the skein’s roughly $7 million-$8 million license fee.

Changing economics

In the past, nets argued against original episodes of scripted skeins during the summer because even if the new show earned higher ratings than a repeat, the rerun was still more cost-efficient. And some web execs still maintain the economics of firstrun entertainment in the summer don’t make sense, with even a low-cost $750,000 per hour drama costing more than twice as much as an episode of, say, “Big Brother 3.”

But as Nielsen numbers for repeats head ever lower, Zucker believes there may finally be an upside to original scripted fare in the summer.

“This is a whole new era,” Zucker said. “The audience wants as much original programming as possible in the summer. Repeat programming of even your best shows isn’t what it used to be. It’s going to force us to fundamentally change the economics of how we do business in the summer.”

Fresh fare

Zucker expects NBC to add 25-35 hours of firstrun scripted comedies or dramas next summer from two or three skeins. Fare is likely to be produced at a lower cost than the typical in-season series, though Zucker isn’t ruling out the possibility that a normally priced drama like NBC’s “Kingpin” could come back during the summer with original episodes.

While Zucker wants to keep the cost of these summer scripted series in check, they’ll no doubt cost more to produce than a reality show like “Dog Eat Dog.” And viewers have often demonstrated a reluctance to commit to scripted network series during the summer, even when a show is designed for the frame (like Fox’s mid-1990s summer bomb “Roar”).

Indeed, just this past weekend, NBC struck out with the first of four summer episodes of the original scripted series “She Spies,” an actioner that heads into firstrun syndication this fall. Despite a huge promo push, skein did no better than the repeat movies NBC had been airing this summer and actually lost young viewers at the half-hour.

Rolling the dice

“This one didn’t work; you can’t bullshit that,” Zucker said of “She Spies.” Nonetheless, NBC’s overall strength this summer puts the net “in the position where we can take those chances.”

NBC has served up roughly 40% firstrun fare this summer, most of it in the form of news and reality programming. Zucker said that he hopes to air even more reality next summer, along with the two or three original scripted shows. “The goal next summer would be at least 50% original programming.”

Repeats also will continue to be a part of NBC’s summer equation, though at a reduced level. Zucker said some NBC shows, like the three “Law & Order” series, do very well in encore showings and will continue to be repeated.

Eventually, however, Zucker thinks nets will have to serve up fresh fare full time, even during the summer.

“In five years, there’ll be no such thing as repeat programming in the summer,” he said. “Viewers will want original programming every night.”

Fox eyes summer script

While NBC is the first network to publicly proclaim its intent to air original scripted skeins in the summer, some of its competitors are also mulling the idea.

Fox Entertainment prexy Gail Berman said her net is also interested in expanding the scope of its summer slate, capitalizing on the success it’s had this year. Indeed, Fox just logged three weeks as the No. 1 net in adults 18-49 — a first for the web.

“We have intentions of developing stuff for summer next year that’s (both) scripted and unscripted,” she said. “The question is, what kind of programming can capture an audience during the summer? And that’s what we’re working on.”

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