Network to announce 52-week schedule

NBC Universal is once again beating the drums of change, unveiling plans to overhaul the Peacock’s upfront pitch to Madison Avenue.

While it will still kick off upfront week with a May 12 advertiser event, NBC U plans to shift the focus away from its still-rebuilding broadcast network. Instead, it will offer an “interactive presentation” highlighting all of the conglom’s TV assets, including cable and digital.

NBC will also try to one-up other nets by announcing what it promised would be “a full, 52-week primetime programming schedule” in early April. While the net touted the move as “unprecedented,” it comes a few years after Fox declared that it was in the 52-week programming business and began unveiling its winter and spring lineups at the same time that it announced the fall sked.

“The traditional primetime presentation shines a light on only one piece of what our company has to offer,” said NBC U prexy-CEO Jeff Zucker. “This new approach gives our clients an early look at NBC’s scheduling strategy and allows us to showcase the full suite of creative advertising solutions and customized services that NBC Universal is uniquely positioned to provide to the marketplace.”

NBC’s intention to announce a new sked in April — and then follow with a mix of small meetings and one big Gotham pitch — promises to disrupt the usual upfront selling season by giving the net a full month’s head start on dealmaking. Other nets aren’t slated to disclose their lineups until May.

Critics emphasized, however, that the preemptive announcement makes it even more likely that whatever sked NBC unveils will be written in pencil. Indeed, just a year ago, Peacock brass were complaining that the net’s traditional lead-off position during upfront week put it at a disadvantage since it meant other nets had the chance to react to NBC’s moves.

NBC Entertainment co-chairman Marc Graboff said the net’s upfront changes aren’t about posturing or pronouncements but are meant to rework a template that’s existed for decades.

“We wanted to turn the upfront presentation from something where you talk at people to something where you talk with people,” he said. “It’ll be more of a conversation about what our strategy is and what our slate is shaping up to be.”

Toward that end, NBC has all but decided to ditch Radio City Music Hall as the site of its May 12 presentation.

The event, which is still being planned, will feature interactive elements that allow ad buyers and media types to sample all of what NBC U is selling. Insiders predicted a “hands-on” feel to the presentation, complete with celebrity appearances. And, yes, there will be a party when it’s over.

NBC’s streamlining of its upfront presentation continues an evolution started by other nets.

A few years back, for instance, ABC shook up upfront protocol by ditching the night-by-night, show-by-show unveiling of the sked. And last year, Fox whittled down its event to barely an hour.

Graboff recognized the dangers of announcing a lineup a month before it knew what other nets were planning.

“I’m not going to say the schedule will be set in stone,” he said. “We won’t know (in April) what show we’re going to launch on Jan. 21, 2009.”

NBC may, however, indicate its long-range plans for, say, Sunday nights or when it intends to launch a series version of “Knight Rider.” It will also tout NBC Entertainment co-chair Ben Silverman’s mandates to have programs bowing all the time on the network.

“There is an insatiable desire for new content year round, and we want to satisfy that need and be efficient at the same time,” Silverman said.

Graboff also noted that previewing the lineup in early April will allow NBC’s sales staff, headed by Mike Pilot, to check the pulse of the ad community — and adjust if needed.

“We’ll say, ‘Here’s what we’re thinking, tell us how you’d like to be involved,’ ” Graboff said. ” ‘If you’d hate to see a certain show Mondays at 9, tell us. We may change it.’ “

Graboff was quick to emphasize that NBC brass remained “the ultimate decisionmakers” when it comes to programming and scheduling. “This is just another tool,” he said.

While the fallout from the 100-day WGA strike has called into question the ability of nets to make pilots in advance of the upfronts, Peacock programmers feel they have enough projects in the hopper to ensure ad buyers will have plenty of new fare to sample.

Advertiser reaction to the plan varied.

Chris Boothe, prexy of Starcom USA, said NBC’s changes weren’t a shocker.

“We’ve been having a dialogue for months, so we were expecting this,” he said, adding that he generally likes how NBC is reshaping upfronts.

“All the networks have to push the reset button and figure out how to change the market,” Boothe said. “What NBC is doing is evolving where they were and having a more customized approach.”

Another Starcom rep, VP and video activation director Jackie Kulesza, said she doesn’t expect NBC to serve up a full year of hour-by-hour lineups. “The goal is for Ben and Marc to lay out their programming vision,” she said.

View was different from another major ad buying company.

“They’re making a big deal out of this, and we don’t really think it’s a big deal,” the insider said. “It seems to us like they’re trying to save money rather than stake out a leadership position.”

Rep also noted that NBC has a history of making grand pronouncements that later to turn out to be not so grand. He cited Zucker’s call to abolish scripted programming at 8 p.m. to which the programmers in Burbank have not been strictly adhering.

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