“Night Court,” the NBC sitcom that was recently rebooted, enjoyed its heyday after as part of NBC’s Thursday-night schedule in the 1980s. But NBCUniversal is hoping the retooled comedy will lead Madison Avenue into the future.
When the original program launched, built around star Harry Anderson as a non-traditional metropolitan judge, NBC sold ads against the debut broadcast of each episode as well as a rerun later in the season. Now, says Mark Marshall, the executive recently given wider oversight over NBCUniversal’s national ad sales, the company is selling broad-reach ads attached to the linear debut of each episode as well as targeted advertising that appears adjacent to the series when it streams on Peacock.
“You have this big premiere on broadcast and then streaming takes over,” Marshall tells Variety. “On the day it launched, we had 5.6 million people watch it, and then over the next seven days, another 5.7 million. Over half of its viewing in its first week came from delayed viewing, and I don’t remember any show that we’ve had that looked like this over the course of a week.”
While the series’ ratings have ebbed as it moves deeper into its season, “Night Court” may be emblematic of the new ways in which TV networks are pitching their programs to advertisers. To be sure, NBC is seeking around $200,000 for a 30-second spot in its linear broadcast of “Night Court,” according to a person familiar with the matter (Marshall declined to comment on ad prices for NBC shows). But the dollars a network can pick up on streaming, while typically representing less in overall volume, are extremely significant to the media economy’s overall health.
NBC’s “Night Court” strategy is likely to be adopted by many traditional TV networks as they head toward what looks to be a complicated “upfront” sales session, when media outlets try to sell the bulk of their commercial inventory ahead of their next programming cycle. It is a sales period that will include, for the first time, efforts from Netflix, which is taking its nascent ad-supported tier to media agencies and marketers. And Alphabet’s YouTube is also increasing its efforts to be part of the mix.
What will they be fighting over? Not as much as in previous years. “2022 was a rough year for the advertising market that saw massive pandemic-era growth come to a screeching halt. Marketers slashed ad budgets over the course of the year in response to a mix of actual financial struggles and anticipated future struggles until, by the end of the holidays, there was hardly any money being spent at all,” notes a report from media-analysis firm SVB MoffettNathanson. “We expect 2023 will be another lousy year for the ad market — and our numbers currently do not assume a full-blown recession.”
The ability to knit together the broad-reach power of traditional broadcast with the consumer-targeting technology of ad-supported streaming may provide a critical difference during a difficult time. Netlflix and YouTube lure big crowds, to be sure, but most of them watch what they want at moments of their own choosing. NBC and its rivals still lure large, simultaneous crowds to a single piece of content shown at a specific moment.
“For a lot of streamers, it’s hard to launch shows,” says Marshall. “The advantage we have is you can promote on linear and digital.”
The bulk of advertising on the linear broadcast of “Night Court” has come from streamers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, auto marketers and restaurants, according to data from iSpot, an audience-measurement company. Many of the sponsors, which have in recent weeks included Pfizer, Subaru, Lexus, Home Depot and Procter & Gamble, have also bought ads for subsequent streaming sessions of the show on Peacock. NBCUniversal will also be making the point that it has, in recent months, snared rights for many of the shows that air on its TV networks to show up more quickly on Peacock, as opposed to Hulu, in which the company holds a minority stake.
Each program in its streaming iteration draws a bespoke audience, says Marshall, both in terms of interest in a variety of products and in viewing behavior. “There’s a different DNA to each show and how it is consumed and how that audience responds,” he says.
When the TV networks open for business in advertising’s upfront sales market in late May, they will likely have mapped out dozens of programs just like “Night Court.” The network with the map that’s easiest to understand is likely to walk away with more advertising dollars.
None of this will keep NBC from trying to make ad money the old-fashioned way. “Night Court” was recently renewed for a second season, says Marshall, and NBC is open to discussions about weaving products into the comedy or tying them to it in strategic fashion.