Zucker gives keynote speech at NATPE

The broadcasting biz has come to a change-or-die crossroads, NBC Universal topper Jeff Zucker bluntly told NATPE-goers in Tuesday’s opening keynote address.

On top of the new competition for eyeballs and ad dollars online and elsewhere, the turmoil caused by the writers strike provided the Peacock with the last big push it needed to make fundamental changes in the way it does business, particularly in programming and development at its broadcast network and O&O stations, Zucker said.

For starters, pilot season as we’ve known it is history at NBC, he assured his audience.

“We are in the middle of a wrenching analog-to-digital transition marked by game-changing technological developments and profound shifts in consumer behavior, all of which demands a re-engineering of our businesses from top to bottom,” Zucker said. “We’ve needed to do this for quite a few years now, but there was no real sense of urgency behind it. Inertia kept things moving in the same direction, a gentle downward slide disguised by a strong economy and robust ad market.”

Zucker zeroed in on the broadcast tradition of spending “tens of millions of dollars every year creating dozens of pilots that will never see the light of day.” And he also hammered the FCC and lawmakers for failing to keep regulatory polices up to speed with the realities of the marketplace and for inflicting on the biz “a series of isolated and disconnected responses to regulatory passions of the moment.”

Zucker made it clear that NBC will order far fewer pilots this year (assuming the strike ends in the near future), and in future years — perhaps five or six compared with 20 or so historically ordered. Zucker said NBC would take cues from cable’s model of taking more time with far fewer projects and shift its focus from launching a slew of shows in September to a year-round approach. He also wants Peacock programmers to order more shows straight to series, exchanging pilots for short orders of six episodes or so, which allow nets and studios to better amortize the costs associated with mounting a new show.

“Why not make fewer pilots, and have the courage of our convictions, and order series straight to air, just like we do on the reality side? That’s what they do in Britain,” Zucker said, “and we keep importing their shows.”

The NBC Universal topper, whom many in Hollywood have long viewed warily as a maverick outsider, took pains to emphasize that NBC U’s endgame was not to reduce the amount of scripted programming on the Peacock, and that “there are no absolutes” in the new mandate for NBC Entertainment. But he also said the overall term deals that studios have signed with scribes and producers over the past two decades “rarely have a payoff.”

Earlier this month NBC U and other major studios let go of dozens of such deals under force majeure provisions spurred by the WGA strike.

Zucker likened pilot season’s disruption by the strike to a forest fire for the biz. While acknowledging the “devastating consequences” the strike has had on the town, he also noted that “fires fertilize the soil with new ash and clear the ground, often setting the stage for robust growth.”

Zucker’s comments were the talk of NATPE’s show floor and exhibition suites Tuesday morning as the wheeling and dealing commenced. Bruce Rosenblum, prexy of Warner Bros. Television Group, said he agreed with Zucker’s assertion that it’s past time that the biz dealt with the costly inefficiencies of the traditional pilot development derby.

“If networks and studios work together in a collaborative way to reduce the inefficiencies of pilot season, that’d be a good thing for everybody,” Rosenblum said.

Some projects will lend themselves to taking the direct-to-series gamble more than others, so there will still be a need for some projects to go to pilot, Rosenblum added. He and others said that one way to take the direct route would be to get a series of scripts ready, then build some downtime into the production sked between the first and second episodes to allow for the kind of fine-tuning and revision that pilots undergo.

Others noted that the direct-to-series route would most likely work better for some dramas than for comedies, because half-hours are so much about getting the show’s proper rhythm and cast chemistry nailed down before subsequent episodes are produced.

Also in his keynote, Zucker reiterated that the mid-May upfront, the “glitzy presentation we do every year at Radio City Music Hall,” is another industry tradition that no longer makes fiscal sense for NBC.

“We believe the big show is a vestige of the last decade,” he said. “What matters is the new schedule and the rationale behind it,” Zucker said.

The Peacock’s top execs will make the rounds of key media buying agencies for more intimate presentations. And he stressed that NBC has no plans to withdraw from the upfront ad sales derby, in which networks book as much as 75%-85% of their ad time for the coming season.

On the regulatory concerns, Zucker held off on citing specifics other than to say that a “comprehensive review” of communications policy is sorely needed.

During the follow-up Q&A, Zucker was asked about the FCC’s recent crusade against indecency on broadcast TV and whether he thought the same rules should apply to cable.

Cable “shouldn’t be regulated any more than it already is, but some standardization between cable and broadcast (regulations) is needed,” he said.

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