Primetime programming slate could be cut

NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker said the current economic conditions and NBC’s recent performance mean “every option is on the table” in terms of improving the Peacock’s fortunes.

“Can we continue to program 22 hours of primetime? Three of our competitors don’t,” Zucker said on the first day of a media conference in Gotham sponsored by investment bank UBS. “Can we continue to program seven nights a week? One of our competitors doesn’t. All of these questions have to be on the table.”

Not being willing to re-examine previous assumptions could prove fatal, Zucker said. “If we don’t, we’ll end up looking like the newspaper business or, even worse, like the automotive business,” he said. “We’ve got to right-size our cost models today.”

Local media, where a loss of auto ads has cut a 30% hole in revenue, is an area where NBC U has been aggressively implementing changes. In particular, a makeover at flagship New York TV station WNBC has prompted an outcry given the massive staff turnover and perceived philosophical shift it entails.

“We’ve only taken heat from people who are scared of change,” Zucker said. “I don’t want to go out of business. I don’t want to be a company that’s filing for bankruptcy. These stations had models created 25 to 30 years ago. And we’re making progress.”

Zucker took a less direct path in answering a question about NBC programming head Ben Silverman’s status given the net’s struggles.

“We have not had a good fall at NBC. I don’t think that’s lost on anyone,” Zucker said. “Three of the top four networks are down double digits year over year. We have particularly not had a great fall.”

Programming heads Silverman and Marc Graboff “are aware that it hasn’t gone well. But in no way have we lost confidence in them,” Zucker said.

NBC U can point to several bright spots, of course — robust gains by cable nets USA and Bravo, a solid movie studio and stellar ratings for “Saturday Night Live” and the Beijing Olympics adding a degree of momentum leading up to a Super Bowl broadcast in February.

More broadly, Zucker acknowledged when prodded about GE’s ownership that the extraordinary circumstances of the fourth quarter and beyond mean that GE’s ownership of NBC U as well as Vivendi’s stake are subject to review, though neither is immediately in question.

Before the session, Zucker joked, he was warned that he might be asked about GE. “I said that’d be fine, but I was going to turn around and ask about UBS,” he said, alluding to the bank’s woes of late.

Don’t expect major changes soon, however. Media companies generally “are playing it safe and protecting themselves for this time, a time we’ve never seen or experienced,” Zucker continued, saying no deals of any kind are likely in the next several months.

On a day of market rallies, GE’s recently revived shares gained an additional 6% to close at $18.88. The Dow climbed 298.5 points, or 3.5%, to reach 8,934.18.

Asked about SAG negotiations, Zucker reprised sentiments from an open letter to the union penned by media execs last week.

“We’d like to make a deal. We’d like to make the same deal we’d made with every other union in town,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine, given what’s happened to the economy, that common sense wouldn’t prevail here.”

The UBS confab continues today with a keynote appearance by Disney chief financial officer Tom Staggs. On Wednesday, Time Warner and CBS toppers Jeff Bewkes and Leslie Moonves are scheduled to appear.

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