Upfront Pitch, NBCU's Quiet Chief Predicts

The media industry’s quietest chief is starting to roar.

NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke has long seemed to cherish a reputation for saying little in public. He shattered that perception Monday by holding court with reporters and asking them to focus their attention on ratings gains the NBC broadcast network has made among viewers between 18 and 49 – the demographic advertisers most covet.

“If I were a consumer, I’d want to know who won the football game, as opposed to who scored the most yards,” Burke said, referring to other networks’ highlighting the total number of viewers lured by particular programs. “We’ve got a network that is focused on the metric” against which advertisers say they want to sell, he added.

Burke said NBC will finish the 2013-2014 TV season leading its nearest rival, Fox, by 12% in the 18-to-49 demo, marking what has been part of a protracted turnaround effort in place even before Comcast took control of NBCU in early 2011.

The executive touted not only the new “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,”  and “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” but also “Today,” which he said was beating ABC’s “Good Morning America” this season in viewers between 18 and 49.

The company is by no means done, Burke said, acknowledging that NBC’s Thursday-night performance is in need of work. And he noted that NBC’s ratings have been stoked by its recent Olympics broadcast and “Sunday Night Football.” But even without sports, he suggested, NBC would still run “neck and neck” with Fox.

Rivals are likely to disagree. “We continue to believe in the value of every viewer and all demos, and the marketplace has responded to our mass audience and broad strength,” said a spokesman for CBS. NBCUniversal has as recently as last week played up the appeal of older audiences, including those about to transition into retirement.

While Burke’s pronouncements certainly have the ait of a victory lap, they also show the Peacock trying to put a stake in the ground weeks before negotiations start for the “upfront” marketplace, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their advertising inventory for the coming season of programming.

Burke said the U.S. economy was “still recovering” from the recession of 2009, but suggested ad demand has intensified, as illustrated by recent interest in NBCU’s Sochi Olympics broadcasts, which Burke said had “sold out” for the first time in years.

TV networks will need to put their best foot forward in the weeks to come. Advertisers are likely to push against the notion that the economy is back to where it once was, and will also hold up dozens of other advertising options at the ready, including streaming video, social media and mobile devices.

Last year’s upfront, which took place with similar economic conditions in place, was weak. The five English-language broadcast networks secured between $8.6 billion and $9.2 billion in advertising commitments in the 2013 upfront, according to Variety estimates, slightly down from the $8.8 billion to $9.3 billion they attracted in 2012.

NBC, which has grappled with ratings shortfalls for several past seasons, was the only network to increase the amount of promises from sponsors, luring between $1.9 billion and $2 billion in advance advertising commitments for its prime-time entertainment schedule, excluding football. In 2012, NBC secured commitments between $1.72 billion and $1.74 billion in its 2012 upfront effort.

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