Slew of NBCUniversal carriage pacts boost network on the rebound

NBC has justly received a lot of attention and glowing ink for the surprising ratings turnaround at the network this fall. But there’s another transformation under way at the network that will have as much impact on the Peacock’s long-term health as a few hit shows.

In the past two months, NBCUniversal has unveiled more than half a dozen wide-ranging carriage deals with cable operators that include significant gains in retransmission consent coin for NBC’s 10 O&O stations. The Peacock has lagged its Big Four rivals in collecting retrans dollars from cable, satellite and telco operators, in part because of the yearlong regulator race it ran in 2010 to secure approval of its merger with cable giant Comcast.

The prospect of the nation’s largest cable operator owning prime Big Four O&O stations at a time when retrans negotiations have become more heated sent NBC rivals and consumer watchdog groups into fits. Conditions on what NBCUniversal and Comcast could and could not do in negotiating deals for the NBC O&Os — as well as Comcast’s dealings in its retrans pacts with non-O&O NBC affiliates — filled many pages of the Federal Communications Commission’s final written order granting approval of the NBCU-Comcast union.

In September 2011, NBCU chief exec Steve Burke noted the irony that the spike in retrans dollars (thanks to hard bargaining by CBS and Fox) came just as Comcast took over NBCUniversal.

“Retransmission consent, which is not a good thing for the cable side of Comcast, is going to be a very good thing for NBCUniversal,” he said at a Bank of America investor confab, noting that the NBC O&Os stand to rake in “hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars” in fees during the next decade from Comcast and its fellow multichannel video programming distributors.

NBCU is definitely getting there thanks to the deal streak the Peacock has been on since November, when it announced a deal with Cablevision — a company known for taking a tough stand in negotiations with programmers.

For NBCU’s man leading the charge, Matt Bond, exec veep of content distribution for NBCU, the FCC’s merger conditions were no big deal, literally.

“We are able to get deals that recognized the market value of NBCUniversal’s broadcast stations and its cable networks,” Bond says.

The FCC rules were focused on ensuring that a combined Comcast-NBCU could not use its market heft to extract wildly high fees by, say, threatening to pull one of Comcast’s regional sports networks in addition to the local NBC O&O. In the case of a dispute, if the MVPD filed a complaint with the FCC, NBCU would be bound by a “stand-still” provision to keep its channels on the operator’s air — even if the previous contract has already expired.

But none of NBCU’s negotiations have gotten to that bare-knuckle stage, according to Bond. The FCC’s focus was all about ensuring “fair market value,” and “fortunately, the value of the NBCUniversal portfolio is very high.”

NBCU’s deal spurt — and there are more ahead, with such heavyweights as Time Warner Cable and DirecTV — has come just as the network is doing victory laps for its worst-to-first rebound in the adults 18-49 demographic for the first half of the season.

Truthfully, there was never any doubt NBC would rake in retrans coin, even if the network’s overall fortunes hadn’t improved so much. NBC’s hold on “Sunday Night Football” alone makes the NBC O&Os a must-have for operators.

In addition to higher fees, the big focus in the latest round of carriage negotiations has been establishing and enhancing cutting-edge VOD and streaming services. The new deals will enable NBCU to expand the availability of TV Everywhere-style authenticated (meaning users must already subscribe to an MVPD) streaming that offers next-day access to most shows across the Peacock’s cable and broadcast nets. Although there’s been much skepticism about whether viewers will ever embrace the TV Everywhere concept, NBCU aims to build on the success, and the lessons learned, from last summer, when it offered such streaming access to its Olympics coverage across a number of different operators.

“TV Everywhere has come a long way in terms of its technical implementation,” Bond says. “The Olympics was really the perfect product to get a lot of people interested in it — millions of people became users just on the back of that one product.”

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