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A case of nerves

NBC U flush as Zucker denies TV jitters

NEW YORK — NBC Universal honchos assured Wall Street analysts Tuesday that the Peacock’s slide in primetime won’t hurt the conglom financially, but conceded it’s not so easy on the nerves.

“The fact that we are not No. 1 is a big story,” NBC U Television Group prexy Jeff Zucker said when it was his turn to address the analyst gathering at U’s theme park in Orlando, Fla. “We can handle it financially. Emotionally, that’s a little tougher.”

Zucker, never known for mincing his words or hiding his impatience with the media, rejected press spin that NBC is in crisis since toppling from No. 1 last fall. He said that’s just not the case, and pledged, “We will get back to first place.” He also said that as a whole, the conglom’s TV properties will see double-digit profit growth this year.

Football tossed

In his remarks, NBC U chair-CEO Bob Wright seemed to take the Peacock out of the bidding for broadcast rights to carry National Football League games.

“We would have an interest in something like football, but it’s unlikely that on a broadcast side we would be able to put up enough money to interest football to do something with us,” Wright said.

NBC got out of the NFL game in 1998, citing prohibitive costs.

Probably not suffering the same psychological angst as Zucker was Universal Pictures chair Stacey Snider. She said she expects the film division to continue its profitable run in 2005, identifying “King Kong” and “Cinderella Man” as among upcoming potential theatrical hits.

Snider said DVD sales also continue to increase and now represent 60% of revs, injecting an unprecedented level of stability into the topsy-turvy film biz.

Film division is on track to increase revenue by more than 10% this year compared to 2004, conglom said.

Varied film formula

One Wall Streeter said he was impressed by Snider’s stated strategy of releasing a varying slate of movies in terms of cost per pic. The formula, he added, seemed to be working.

Generally speaking, analysts are keen on NBC U these days, seeing it as a key growth driver for parent conglom General Electric. But NBC U isn’t a separately traded company as are the other major media congloms.

Still, investors — along with Madison Avenue — will be watching the midseason lineup carefully to see if NBC can improve its ratings performance. “Medium” has been a strong starter for NBC, with three other yet-to-bow shows — “The Office,” “Law & Order: Trial by Jury” and “Revelations” — picking up early buzz.

Zucker said the ratings battle in primetime hasn’t been so tight in years and stressed that even if NBC is lagging, the spread isn’t enormous.

Conglom said it isn’t in danger of having to meet unexpected advertiser make-goods, since it knew ratings would fall with the departure of “Friends” and had adjusted its ad rates accordingly.

Diversified revenue

Opening the morning analyst meeting in Orlando, Wright said the beauty of the merger is a diversified revenue base, which relieves the pressure on one division — such as the NBC broadcast net — to carry the entire kingdom.

And even with the ratings falloff in primetime, NBC U expects its TV empire — which includes a lucrative cable stable and other dayparts on the broadcast side — to see operating profits jump 20% to $1.9 billion in 2005; revenues are projected to rise 13% to $7 billion.

Analysts listening to the presentation noted how diversified the merged conglom is — 50% advertising- and 50% fee-based.

NBC U as a whole forecasts revenues will grow 15% this year to $14.8 billion, double what revs were before NBC sealed the merger deal that gave it Universal Studios, along with its theme parks and U-owned cable nets.

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