NBC’s gold medal gambit

Nets concede traditional biz models are failing

This article was updated at 7:46 p.m.

NBC said Wednesday it will fan its feathers early and debut virtually all of its fall sked at the end of August, immediately following the Summer Olympics.

Decision to launch the lineup two to three weeks early could represent a seismic shift in the way viewers have traditionally embraced new shows and reflects the precarious state of the broadcast network biz.

Indeed, NBC is hardly the only network to talk about launching a huge chunk of its sked prior to the traditional mid-September “premiere week”: Fox, which last summer bowed nighttime soap “The OC” to impressive results, plans to launch fall shows as early as June.

Facing eroding audiences, the nets concede their traditional business models are tearing at the seams.

“I’m not ready to pronounce that the fall schedule is dead, but we’re clearly in a changing environment,” NBC Entertainment, News and Cable prexy Jeff Zucker said Wednesday, declaring that there could be no greater lead-in for the fall lineup than the heavily watched Olympics.

“I think we have to understand television is changing, and it’s changing right now. And if we play by the old rules, we’re all going to be left behind.”

Zucker revealed the move at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour in Los Angeles.

The shift in the fall season debut topped a long list of other Peacock announcements, including news that CNBC has signed tennis sportscaster John McEnroe to host a weeknight 10 p.m. (ET) talkshow.

Zucker announced programming notes for the February sweeps as well as dates for the series finales of “Friends” and “Frasier,” both of which will air in May.

‘Jordan’ to return

The exec also said crime drama “Crossing Jordan” will make its return in March, and that the net will air “Average Joe: Adam Returns,” a four-part series starring Adam Mesh, the runner-up in the original “Average Joe.” Series premieres March 15.

If NBC goes ahead with its plan for the fall, virtually all of the Peacock’s new shows would bow during the weeks of Aug. 30 and Sept. 6, Zucker said.

One exception will be the Sunday night lineup, which will follow the traditional route and debut later in September after the Emmys.

The Olympic Games, which will be held in Athens, end Aug. 29.

Zucker insisted the earlier bow won’t affect development, nor does it automatically mean increased series orders.

He also wasn’t bothered by the fact that Nielsen Media Research follows the traditional fall season in tracking ratings. When it comes to Madison Ave., Zucker said he doesn’t believe advertisers will have any issues.

“The fact is, we just can’t be beholden to the actual calendar. We can’t be beholden to the Nielsen calendar either. At the end of the day, it’s a business proposition,” Zucker said. “I’m not trying to say that anybody else should or would do it. We have a unique situation, given the Olympics are at the end of August, and it gives us a platform that’s very strong for us.”

Convention issues

Earlier bow date means NBC will go up against the Republican National Convention, which runs Aug. 30-Sept. 2. Zucker said there will be no less coverage of the GOP convention, tentatively suggesting that NBC News might air special convention coverage at 10 p.m. ET.

In recent years, all news networks have slimmed down their coverage of the national political conventions, which have become largely canned, with little breaking news.

Also on Wednesday, NBC News announced that “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw and Sunday morning “Meet the Press” anchor Tim Russert will lead election coverage for the network. Brian Williams, who is slated to replace Brokaw as anchor of “Nightly” sometime after the November presidential election, is also expected to play a prominent role.

Just as NBC News remains the market leader, so does NBC primetime remain the market leader when it comes to the key adults 18-49 demo.

The net, however, is sure to face a tough time when “Friends” and “Frasier” exit the Thursday night sked, with no apparent replacement in sight.

One hoped-for replacement was “Coupling,” which quickly bombed last fall. Another failed new show was Sunday night’s “Lyon’s Den,” headlining Rob Lowe.

Only two misses

“In all, we’ve launched nine new shows this year,” Zucker said. “Out of nine shows, only two really missed. The fact is, those two were incredibly high-profile misses. And I think that’s why there’s been a lot of talk about us this season.”

The woes associated with the 2003-2004 season have been vastly overblown, Zucker said.

Taking the four major nets together, viewership among adults 18-49 is down only 4%. He predicted NBC will finish the TV year actually up over the previous year.

“The networks haven’t lost their luster,” Zucker insisted.

In other announcements:

  • A two-hour “Friends” series finale will air May 6 at 9 p.m. ET. The first hour will be a retrospective; the second, the finale. Cast will appear later that evening on NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” from a Central Park set.

  • The two-hour “Frasier” series finale will air May 13 at 9 p.m. ET. Just as with “Friends,” the first hour will be a retrospective, followed by a one-hour episode.

  • NBC telepic “Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of ‘Charlie’s Angels’ ” will air March 29, while the miniseries “10.5” will air during the May sweeps.

  • NBC has renewed sudser “Passions” for a sixth season, through 2004-05.

  • Latenight host Jay Leno will take “The Tonight Show” to Las Vegas for the first time in seven years during the week of May 10. Show will be taped at the Paris Hotel and Casino. In a previously announced trip, NBC’s “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” will travel to Toronto during the February sweeps. Shows will air from Canada Feb. 10-13.

  • Net has lined up a slew of celebrity guest appearances during the February sweeps, including Minnie Driver and John Cleese (both of whom will return to “Will & Grace”), Michael J. Fox (“Scrubs), Paris Hilton (“Las Vegas”), rapper Snoop Dog (“The Tracy Morgan Show”), Patrick Swayze (“Whoopi”) and Jay Mohr (“The West Wing.)

  • Peacock will kick off the February sweeps with a Super Bowl Sunday three-episode marathon of hit reality show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Counterprogramming move includes one episode previously aired on NBC and two that only ran on sister cable net Bravo.

  • The season finale of “Ed” will air Feb. 6, with title character Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh) walking down the aisle with Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen).

  • A super-sized, pre-Valentine’s Day episode of “Friends” airing on Feb. 12 will feature Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) getting married.

  • On Feb. 15, NBC will be the first broadcast net to air the hit animated movie “Shrek,” including never-before-seen footage.
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