NBC Might Scale Back Hours, Says Chief Zucker

NBC is looking at “all options” to revamp its broadcast model, including possibly cutting the number of prime-time hours or even nights per week, NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker said Monday afternoon.

Zucker said that the entire broadcast industry, including NBC, are under tremendous challenges because of the changing media landscape as well as the downturn in the economy.

“Can we continue to broadcast 22 hours in prime time? Three of our competitors don’t,” Zucker said during Monday’s keynote at the annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference. “Can we continue to broadcast seven days a week? One of our competitors doesn’t.”

He asked whether Friday and Saturday should be programmed the same way as it has been in the past. Most of the other networks don’t program originals on Saturday night anymore, with the exception of CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery and NBC’s Saturday Night Live after 11:30 p.m.

“All of those questions are on the table and are actively looking at all these options,” Zucker said.

After the UBS event, Zucker told The Hollywood Reporter there are no plans to do this but that in today’s media climate, the options are prudent to at least consider. But he also said he didn’t want to give the wrong impression.

“It’s not giving up. It’s not retrenching. It’s not throwing in the towel,” Zucker said.

There have been rumors that the networks were at least looking at the possibility of cutting back on hours or days, returning them to local affiliates to program. But it seemed the first time that they had been discussed in public, to the investment community or anywhere else.

NBC, CBS and ABC, the legacy networks, program in prime time seven days a week for at least three hours a night. Fox programs two hours a night, seven days a week. The CW and MyNetworkTV do less.

But at the same time, the ratings are down across the board for the broadcast nets. Only CBS has had relatively modest declines; the rest have seen steeper drops.

“We do have to continue to rethink what a broadcast network is today and what we want to be aspirationally,” Zucker said. “Do we have to be the way we’ve always been?”

Zucker expressed doubts about an often-predicted economic rebound in the back half of 2009, saying it may only come later. “I don’t think we know,” he cautioned. “And I don’t know how anyone knows.”

The NBC Uni CEO also said that digital ad sales momentum has hit a sudden wall this quarter and will not grow as much as people had predicted, not even in the area of high-end video (such as NBC.com, Hulu). “It has really, really slowed dramatically,” Zucker said, and “dried up in the scatter market.”

Overall, the company “can’t count on digital to be the big growth engine that we thought it would be in 2009,” he warned.

Zucker called the Beijing Olympics a learning experience. “Online viewing of the Olympics helped drive the TV ratings” without cannibalizing TV viewing, he said.

However, the online Olympics coverage was not a revenue and profit driver to the degree it could have been, he said. “We will use what we learned to go to market better” in Vancouver and other future Games, Zucker said. Asked about a possible actors strike, Zucker said that “as an industry we have been able to negotiate (deals) with six other unions” under better economic circumstances. But “for reasons I can’t understand,” SAG doesn’t want to sign the same deal, he added.

“We would like to make a deal,” he concluded, adding that it is “hard to imagine that in a weak economy common sense wouldn’t prevail here.”

Meanwhile, Zucker acknowledged the poor performance of NBC but didn’t lay the blame at NBC Entertainment co-chairs Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff.

“We have not had a good fall at NBC,” Zucker acknowledged. He said that none of the broadcast nets have had a strong TV season. But that doesn’t give him any comfort that broadcast overall isn’t in good shape.

“I don’t think that’s lost on Ben or Marc Graboff,” Zucker said in response to a question about Silverman’s status from the audience. “In no way have we lost confidence” in either Silverman or Graboff.

Zucker also said that the network’s development model has been evolving, and it would involve an increased amount of pilots this coming season but there would also be some direct to series shows as well. He said NBC was increasing the amount of investment in original programming.