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2014-15 Upfront

NBCU’s Steve Burke Declares Victory

Asks to be judged on 18-49 performance, suggests better measurement

Steve Burke | Photo: Getty Images

“We don’t want you to think that we were trying to hide or conceal anything but we didn’t want to talk about what we were doing. [We wanted] instead [to] talk about what we had done,” said NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke in his introductory remarks to press this afternoon at a lunch at 30 Rock.

The executive touted the company’s performance in recent months, saying that, for the first time in 10 years, NBC was going to be on the top of the broadcast heap at the end of the season. Burke allowed that the Olympics had helped boost performance, but noted that “even four years ago in Vancouver, we weren’t at the levels we are now.”

Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NBC's coverage of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games averaged : 21 million viewers, a 12.0 household rating and a 5.3 in the 18-49 demo.

Burke also gently asked reporters to stop printing total viewer numbers and look instead at the all-important adults 18-49 demo, likening the total viewer numbers to the yardage logged in a football game. Asked whether or not that info was still important to readers, Burke replied, “I’d want to know who won the game.”

Season-to-date, NBC is beating all comers in the 18-49 demo, averaging a 2.9 rating—up 21 percent versus the year-ago period. Second place Fox is averaging a 2.6 (up 4 percent), while CBS is down 20 percent to a 2.4 and ABC is down 9 percent (2.1). In terms of total reach, CBS leads the pack with a 27-week average draw of 10.8 million viewers, down 11 percent, while NBC is second with 9.92 million (up 39 percent). Fox has improved 10 percent year-over-year to 7.83 million viewers, while ABC is down 5 percent (7.47 million).

Burke is more or less the polar opposite of CBS’ Les Moonves—he refused to make bold pronouncements about the upfront beyond a prediction that NBC would win the season in demo ratings (which is practically a foregone conclusion at this point), but had plenty to say about the state of measurement in the market today. Indeed, before we could even hit “save" on this article, CBS issued a response to Burke’s declaration of victory via a spokesperson: “This is an interesting shift, considering they’ve been publicly touting the value of the Boomer audience for quite some time…and those Olympic demos won’t be around next year.”

To be entirely fair to the Peacock, Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBCU, did in fact field a question about the “Alpha Boomer” demo his network has been pushing, but Burke said that based on what buyers actually purchse from networks at the moment, 18-49 demo ratings points comprise the vast majority of the GRPs in the market. It remains to be seen whether networks like NBC (and CBS, where Moonves has spoken often about how much he wants to see higher value placed on older demos) will be able to sell “Alpha Boomers,” though.

The conversation also covered digital and mobile viewership—a serious thorn in Burke’s side. “Imagine if you owned a store and for 25 percent of the transactions, the customer just walked out with the merchandise,” Burke said. That’s the situation he and others believe broadcast is dealing with at the moment, where programmers are putting their content out into ad-supported media and finding themselves unable to monetize it to the degree they think is fair. (It’s not clear who the shoplifter is in that analogy.)

Adweek asked Burke whether advertisers should be expected to pay as much for ads on phones or tablets as they do for ads on plasma screen TVs. “It’s a fair conversation to have,” he replied. "But we would like to see all the measurement together.” Tools that break ad units down into online, mobile, and linear ratings still exist—they just don’t come together in a meaningful way to give advertisers a single currency that’s good across all platforms. 

Wurtzel said that “this is not all Nielsen’s fault.” Rather, he said, it’s a combination of difficult circumstances, particularly that “it’s very, very hard for measurement to keep up with the pace of technology.”

NBCU ad sales president Linda Yaccarino provided plenty of insights as well—she told reporters that the number of ads sold against 25-54-year-olds on the lucrative Today show was only half of the spots NBC sold. The other half was in the 18-49-year-old demo. Yaccarino also said the sponsors who’d got in on the ground floor with The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon had gotten plenty of bang for their buck.

“We’ve had some difficult handoffs in the past,” admitted Burke, a veiled reference to the Leno/Conan/Leno debacle in 2010. “This was an incredibly smooth handoff. Jay’s last three words on The Tonight Show were ‘watch Jimmy Fallon.’”

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