NBC A Downer At Broadcast Upfront Party

With all the broadcast TV networks celebrating the announcement of their 2016-17 schedules, NBC was alone in throwing a wet blanket on the power of the medium. It combined its presentation with those of all its cable networks that deliver far fewer viewers to advertisers than the Peacock mothership. All to save some cab fare.

NBC almost ruined all the fun. While the other broadcast networks celebrated the power and pre-eminence of broadcasting in their upfront presentations this week, NBC chose to downplay its specialness by allowing its many cable networks to share the Radio City Music Hall spotlight. However, in NBC’s defense, i’ll agree it may have saved some cab fares.

NBC aside, the upfronts were a celebration of the oldest TV medium. The networks presented their new shows and grids for the fall with high hopes and much ado. Stars and hyperbole abounded.

Advertisers, agencies, critics and viewers looked over the selections and laid their bets on the winners and losers. It was almost comforting to hear the usual complaints about the sameness of the new offerings and the lack of daring in the choices.

Many affiliates were in town for the festival of sizzle and selling. I’m sure they enjoyed being at center stage in the media world again, even though they will have to pick up the check for much of the programming and hoopla with their reverse comp payments.

Combined, the networks introduced a whopping 42 new series, some of the abbreviated variety — 19 for the fall, and 22 for midseason.

Taken together, the upfronts reinforced the fact that the broadcast networks remain the first stop for mass national advertisers.


Broadcast audiences are fractions of what they were in the 1980s when cable programming really started getting traction, but they are still the biggest fractions. It’s called reach in the trade. Broadcasters have it; the cable networks don’t.

It’s like that old joke about the two guys in the woods facing an angry bear. The first guy says, “Let’s run.” The other says, “We can’t outrun a bear.” The first guy says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you.”

That’s what the broadcasters are doing. They are outrunning all of basic cable and the countless digital outlets with video that rely on advertising.

If only 10 linear general entertainment TV networks survive the digital onslaught, you can safely bet that the Big Four (maybe even the Big Five) will be among them.

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The week’s good vibes were not simply manufactured by the promotion departments. They came honestly from the sales departments, which expect upfront sales to rebound significantly from last year. Those expectations are based on demand in the scatter market that has been pushing prices up as much as 20% over last year.

In other words, agencies that shaved their upfront buys last spring and summer because they didn’t like the prices have been regretting it this spring.

We’ll watch closely to see how the sales play out over the next weeks and months.

The upfronts also say a lot about the network strategies.

Like last season, the networks eschewed reality programming, despite the on-going success of several established shows, notably NBC’s The Voice.

That reflects the networks’ overarching interest, which is creating shows that they can sell again and again on every platform in every country of the world — from Amazon to Zaire.

Underscoring the strategy is the networks’ continued unabashed preference for shows that they own or co-own — what the Hollywood trades are calling vertically integrated. Such shows account for about four-fifths of the networks’ schedules.

At a post-upfront investors’ conference yesterday, CBS chief Les Moonves made no bones about it. “A show that’s 100% owned [by CBS] will generally get a better time period and generally will be more important to the network,” he said, according to an account in Deadline Hollywood.

Now back to NBC.

Rather than stage an upfront for NBC, parent NBCU decided to hold a single upfront for all its ad-supported networks. According to reporter Adam Buckman, NBCU gave NBC about the same attention in its two-hour presentation as it did its cable networks — the likes of Syfy, USA Network, Bravo and E!

The event turned into a long string of sizzle reels, one network almost indistinguishable from the next.

NBCU CEO Steve Burke explained that the all-in-one approach would save a buck and everybody’s time.

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“We did it because over the last few years, we had eight upfronts. And you think of the amount of time all of us spent — two hours at each upfront, cab rides and everything else — the amount of time and money …. It really made sense to have one unified upfront.”

Of course, there was more to it to that. NBCU sales chief Linda Yaccarino explained:  “Why one upfront? It’s because this is how we sell, as one portfolio.”

So, for the sake of efficiency, NBCU decided that it would skip its one opportunity each year to underscore the importance and vitality of its flagship network — the one network in its entire portfolio that people might actually pay for if they had to.

It’s a odd strategy and somewhat insulting, I think, to the affiliates that NBC counts on to deliver its programming to every TV home and cable headend in the country.

Affiliates like Ralph Oakley, Perry Sook and Jordan Wertlieb could not possibly have enjoyed sitting there hearing about the swell new shows that were coming from E! to suck the lifeblood out of their businesses.

It was supposed to be their day.

P.S. The affiliates care most about what the networks air at 10 o’clock (9 o’clock in the case of Fox affiliates) since it’s those shows that can carry viewers into their latenight newscasts.

You would think that with the proliferation of DVRs and VOD such worries be a thing of a the past. But, no. The ABC affiliates have made quite a fuss about their network’s poor performance at 10.

To appease them, ABC zapped Castle and Nashville on Mondays and Wednesdays at 10, respectively, and replaced them with Conviction and Designated Survivor, a new vehicle for Kiefer Sutherland. They moved the returning Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into the late slot on Tuesday.

We’ll have more about the news lead-in programming for you next week.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (14)

Leave a Reply

Mark Stolaroff says:

May 20, 2016 at 5:07 pm

It will be just a matter of time when the traditional networks will be cable nets and local affiliates will be independents.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    May 20, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    As proven by Thursday Night Football, the NCAA Playoffs (Football and Basketball), iHeartRadio Awards, and countless other series that have moved their original series airings from OTA Networks to cable, there will be a massive loss in ratings if/when this happens – so it will not be happening as soon as you think.

    Catherine Lucey says:

    May 24, 2016 at 10:09 am

    on top of premium ad pricing, the OTA stations and nets are getting among the highest affiliate fees from cable subscribers. they’ll be fine.

Amneris Vargas says:

May 20, 2016 at 8:19 pm

oh, come on Harry, you had more fun than what you imply. TV and tv-ish is fun and consumable.

Gregg Palermo says:

May 20, 2016 at 9:10 pm

The first stop for advertisers but the last stop for young audiences. How long can that disconnect survive?

Jim Zoski says:

May 21, 2016 at 4:40 pm

They keep saying its the last stop for young audiences, but you are forgetting that your audiences grow up, have kids, get jobs and need to relax like adults. TV will be important to them also, even if it;s not as important now while they are obsessed with friends and social wastes of time. That will end at some point though, just as they move on from Apps at an amazing speed once they outgrow them. Nothing will beat a 55 Inch screen and a nice couch.

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    May 22, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    The real question is since they grew up with apps and such will they ever have an interest or familiarity with OTA, cable or satellite… they may indeed be sitting back on a nice couch watching a 55 inch screen, but where will the content be coming from…


May 23, 2016 at 11:56 am

Gotta agree with Harry, pushing cable programs to affiliates is poor judgment and raises the level of cables’ much smaller fractionalized audiences. The “symphony” NBC promised would help affiliates doesn’t seem to be such beautiful music, good deal for Comcast, not so good for NBC.

Brian Walshe says:

May 23, 2016 at 3:27 pm

Harry wrote: “That reflects the networks’ overarching interest, which is creating shows that they can sell again and again on every platform in every country of the world – from Amazon to Zaire.”

Anyone think this ownership strategy is going to lead to restoration of the Fin/Syn rules that were established in the early 1970s and abolished in 1993?

For folks that were’t around back then (or have a fuzzy recall) here’s an explanation:

That, and the Prime Time Access rule changed the picture of production ownership and financing, while attempting to give independent production companies a better shot at prime time success.

Formation of Viacom to own CBS-related productions was a result. And we know how the fish swallowed the whale to reunite Viacom with CBS.

The percentage of shows on broadcast TV networks owned by TV networks has grown markedly, if you compare what’s listed in the two links above with numbers from the upcoming season listed here:

Moonves is quoted as telling a May conference call:

“Ownership plays as big a role in picking up new series as it does in renewing existing ones. Moonves today noted that Elementary, which CBS owns 100%, last year “made approximately an $80 million profit for the corporation,” while Person Of Interest, owned by Warner Bros. TV, “broke even.”

“As I’m looking at my new schedule, guess which show got renewed? It became really self evident.”

Elementary was picked up for a fifth season, while Person of Interest was canceled after 5.”

Brian Walshe says:

May 23, 2016 at 3:36 pm

Back in 2010, TV Newscheck posted this item:

“Nearly 20 years after the FCC threw out its so-called fin-syn rules, the Caucus for Producers, Writers & Directors believes it’s time to bring them back.

Commenting on the FCC inquiry into its various media ownership rules, the Caucus asked that the FCC require that each network set aside 25% of its primetime schedule for programs supplied by independent producers.”

Greg Johnson says:

May 26, 2016 at 11:13 pm

The TV ecosystem has changed, particularly the distribution component. Given that local news programming is in local broadcasters’ control, what grade would you give local news programming? If the FCC removes themselves from the picture as they should, networks will go to IP delivery and let affiliates fend for themselves. Broadcasters give networks grief for not doing enough at 10 PM, 7-9AM, sports and they should answer the same question: “How are you performing?” Most people under 50, can’t name an anchor or a station and that will only get worse. The old adage about local broadcast news: “a mile wide and an inch deep” has no place in the current media eco-system. News cycles have changed and everyone knows it except broadcasters. WCVB is expanding the number of news programming hours in Boston for what? Did the audience want it or was it a chance to convert dismal access audience ratings in revenue from political advertising. The web and mobile products of WCVB, where the audience has moved, are below average quality by any measurement standard. WCVB is the largest market of a company, Hearst TV, that claims news programming quality is a priority. No one is drinking that Kool Aid except WCVB and Hearst executives. It is ironic that Hearst’s CEO is a Harvard undergraduate alumnus and Boston is the home of MIT. Boston is the home of intellectual debate about how B2B and B2C companies find competitive advantages from Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter or the now visionary Clay Christionsen. Let’s be clear, Hearst is harvesting cash-flow, but they are not a leader in anything, local news programming, new media, disruptive brands, nothing, Hearst can “cherry pick” new leaders in Omaha, Sacramento, Lancaster (if you know where that is), but they have, like most network affiliates, found a way to deliver homogenized news programming that will be extinct sooner than later. Mediocrity is a reasonable goal if you can find maintain the cash-flow harvest for an extended period.

Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

May 27, 2016 at 10:01 pm

So Harry, what did you mean by “…the one network in its entire portfolio that people might actually pay for if they had to.” You do realize that 85 – 90% of viewers DO PAY for NBC through retransmission agreements, right??

    Linda Stewart says:

    May 28, 2016 at 7:15 am

    They pay indirectly as they pay for basic cable networks. My point is that in an an a la carte world people would pay a monthly fee — write a check, put it on their credit card — to continue receiving NBC. Not so sure about the NBCU basics.

    Veronica Serrano Padilla says:

    May 28, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    Thank you for the clarification.

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