News

Upfronts May End

2/01/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

NBC Universal is contemplating big changes in the ways it develops programming and sells it to advertisers, including the possible cancellation of traditional upfronts by the media company in favor of in-person presentations at agencies, CEO Jeff Zucker said last week.

Zucker told a National Association of Television Programming Executives Conference attendees here that NBCU would make an announcement in the next two weeks about whether it will stage a traditional upfront this season. He joked, though, that network executives have made travel plans so the audience could take that as a hint.

He also said the so-called pilot season at NBC will be greatly different this year, and not just because of the strike by the Writers Guild of America. The process could be much more like the process utilized successfully by USA Network.

USA has developed five pilots in the last two years, he noted. Two of them — Burn Notice and Psych — have been big hits, he said.

NBC’s cable networks are successful because they rely on stories, not high-priced actors and directors, to develop a show, Zucker said. Broadcasters can no longer afford a development system like that of 2007, when $500 million was spent on script development, resulting in 80 pilots, only eight of which were picked up as shows, he said. None of those eight were great hits, he noted.

The strategy at the some of the NBCU cable networks is to buy into a concept and order that series straight to air, he said. Six episodes can be created for the estimated $10 million it costs to make a pilot, which frequently does not represent how the series will ultimately look on-air, he said.

Zucker said networks shouldn’t make less scripted programming, but develop them with less waste. “If [producers] believe in it, and we believe in it, it should go direct to air,” he said.

Zucker called the WGA strike only the most obvious symptom of the tumult in the television business.

The strike has given network executives time to think about how they can fundamentally change the programming business and while mulling the challenge of monetizing new programming platforms, he said. “We don’t want to trade on-air dollars for digital pennies,” he stressed.

Cable networks now represent 54% of NBC Universal’s income, with broadcast generating just 5%, he said, though he added that broadcasting is an important part of the company’s legacy.

Zucker also called for a comprehensive review of communications regulation by the Federal Communications Commission to reflect current business and competitive realities. He criticized the FCC for making “isolated decisions based on outdated perceptions” about the television business.

Later, he added that the rules the FCC chooses to enforce “due to the political whims of the day” are outdated.

Asked about rumors that General Electric, NBC Universal’s parent company, might sell the programmer, Zucker pointed to the television investments the parent company has made in the last year, including the acquisition of cable programmer Oxygen Media and a stake in an Indian broadcaster that he anticipates could be hugely profitable in the next four years.

Spinoff rumors grow when NBC isn’t successful in primetime, but the rumors wane as performance improves, he said.

“If we don’t perform, they should sell us,” he said.

Asked about possible changes in the demographic target or programming of Oxygen, Zucker merely said programming on the female-targeted network would be complementary to what’s on Bravo.

September