It wasn’t dollar signs that lured World Wrestling Entertainment back to its old USA stomping grounds. WWE brass were wooed by old-fashioned teamwork.
Under Bob Wright and TV chief Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal made an offer last month to the wrestling folks that Spike prexy Doug Herzog couldn’t match: a home on USA, runs on NBC and Spanish-language network Telemundo and sure-to-be multiple appearances on “Today” and “The Tonight Show.”
NBC U, which celebrated its first anni last week, isn’t randomly using one part of its TV empire to benefit the other nor is this the “synergy” of the ’90s at work.
Rather, while Viacom and Clear Channel are looking to split up their assets, NBC U is re-creating itself as a single-minded conglom where the importance of an individual net yields to the good of the GE mothership.
With the Peacock web trolling in fourth place for the first time in years, industryites are calling last year’s $14 billion mega-merger “perfect timing.”
“You’ve got NBC in a little trouble, and now a bunch of growing cable networks that are not only overshadowing but helping the broadcast network out by promoting its shows,” one agent says. “A very smart move if I ever saw one.”
Credit Jeff Gaspin, president of NBC U cable entertainment and cross-network strategy. Under his watch, shows have been ushered between the Peacock and the cablers in a promotional bonanza not yet attempted by other congloms.
So far, his cable group has emerged as the real star. In the first quarter, Bravo topped affluent 25-54 rankings, and Sci Fi and USA dominated overall Friday viewership with hot skeins “Battlestar Galactica,” both “Stargate” series and “Monk.” To boot, the cable group increased first-quarter revs by 23% from a year ago.
“There is tremendous spirit of cooperation, and that’s just the culture of GE,” Gaspin says.
In the new cross-platform game plan, USA takes some runs of NBC’s “Medical Investigation,” while Bravo repurposes “Revelations.” Elsewhere, Sci Fi Channel helps kickstart Bravo’s “Project Greenlight” by re-airing the first few episodes.
Development for each network is kept separate, but NBC U execs keep each other in mind when passing on a project. Bonnie Hammer, prez of USA and Sci Fi, says she has her eye on several NBC pilots that she’d like to rework for USA if they don’t make the Peacock’s fall sked.
Says Gaspin: “At this point, there are no set rules. We’re not trying to operate under or against our teammates. What we like to do is keep our sister networks and their needs in mind when we are evaluating projects: This network might not want it, but could it work for someone else?”
Ben Silverman, who produces NBC’s “The Office,” Bravo’s “Blow Out” and USA’s “Nashville Star,” credits the season three ratings surge for “Nashville” to the power of the NBC U promotional engine.
“They ran promos all over Bravo of the third season, in addition to a mini marathon. That’s something we didn’t have last time. The winner even went on the ‘Today’ show, also a first,” Silverman says. “You don’t get that kind of support anywhere else.”
“Our strategy is not directed so much to benefit individual networks — extra ratings points for any one network for any one episode are a perk, and a short-lived one, not to mention,” Gaspin says. “What we’re trying to do is take shows and make them hit shows. That’s what this exposure is about — not rating the repeat episodes.”
In other words, he says, it’s not about monetizing every pair of eyeballs.
But to date, NBC has yet to experience the lift the cable side has.
Peacock aired a condensed version of the “Battlestar Galactica” premiere, and the series went on to record ratings on Sci Fi. And cross-cable plays (like Bravo’s “Greenlight” airing on Sci Fi) seem to help as well.
Multiple plays for NBC’s reality shows (“The Biggest Loser” and “The Contender”) and one-hour dramas (“Revelations” and “Medical Investigation”) haven’t boosted viewership on the broadcast web significantly. What’s more, the shows are popping up on niche cablers, all of which are striving to create and stay true to their brands.
Hammer and Bravo prexy Lauren Zalaznick say nothing is forced on them. And when issues arise, they’re settled to the satisfaction of both sides.
Insiders say that at one point NBC execs wanted to relocate the upcoming season of “Nashville Star” to the network. Logistics having to do with the audition process prevented it from happening, according to sources, but Hammer flatly denies any serious talks took place.
“Did they tease me about doing that? Yes,” she says. “Were there serious talks about it moving? Absolutely not. Zucker is a smart programmer. He’s not going to mess with a good thing.
“What you see happening is cable developing better programming and spending more money on it,” she continues. “I will go head-to-head with anything on broadcast in terms of quality. NBC recognizing that quality isn’t surprising.”
One NBC U insider agrees the promotional opportunity the cable nets get by being in the NBC family is enviable. But he adds that so far “those opportunities flow downhill,” and that NBC product is quicker to show up on the various platforms than a cable show. But to be fair, he says, “Cable has a lot more holes to fill than the major networks. And the balance is being adjusted every day. It’s very much a work in progress.”
Sources say Peacock is strongly considering rerunning frosh seasons of USA’s “Kojak” and Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” on NBC this summer. If it happens, it will be more than Viacom’s broadcasters have been able to do for Showtime’s “Fat Actress” or Spike TV’s “I Hate My Job,” for example.
“The respect NBC has for the cable brand is phenomenal,” Zalaznick says.
A rival cable exec offers that most cablers can’t stay true to their brand 24 hours a day.
“TBS may have a ton of off-net sitcoms that fit into their ‘very funny’ branding. But they still air baseball. And they still air movies in the drama and thriller genres,” the exec says. “You make the best of what you have.”
Still, in the overcrowded television landscape, cable brands serve as both demo definers and marketing tools. As USA embarks on its first bona fide branding campaign in years — the tag “Characters Welcome” will be officially unveiled this summer — diluting a brand could be potentially harmful.
“We’re very cautious and aware of it,” Gaspin says. “We don’t want to cross-platform to the point of brand blurring.”
That means when off-beat laffer “The Office” came into play, Sci Fi was quickly given a pass, while USA, Bravo and what appears to be the default platform, CNBC, took solely promotional runs. (CNBC regularly repurposed episodes of “The Apprentice,” “The Contender” and “Conan O’Brien.”) Hammer also wisely opted out of taking on repeats of “The Contender,” even though a run of the character-based boxing drama wouldn’t have jarred the regular programming mix.
“At every level, we have a concerted, broad, strategic dialogue. I think there is a legitimate learning curve, and we’re consistently assessing the process itself,” Zalaznick says. “That in and of itself is an accomplishment.”