Zucker: TV Biz Must Evolve

NEW YORK In his opening address at the 2008 National Association of Television Program Executives conference, Jeff Zucker, president and chief executive officer of NBC Universal, outlined the changing broadcast landscape and offered his thoughts on what the networks must do to reinvent their current business models.

“As a former producer I understood the tradition of the program,” said Zucker. “But I was never bound to keep everything exactly the same if there was something we could do to successfully move forward. We are in a business of change right now, very big change, and we must have the conviction to reinvent the wheel in the future when necessary. Everyone may not agree with our strategy, but if it works, it could spark more strategic movement.”

One of the first initiatives comes, no doubt, as a result of the current writers strike at a time when the networks are normally knee deep in pilot season. “We will not abandon the ritual of producing pilots by any means,” said Zucker. “But we might cut back our pilot order from 20 to five. It’s all about strategically choosing the right projects to go directly to series order, which should have no bearing on their chances of succeeding or not. I leave that in the hands of Ben [Silverman] and Marc [Graboff] to decide which potential series we choose pilots for.”

Producing fewer pilots could result in more series orders. “We could potentially produce a full six-episode series in exchange for the cost of one or two pilots,” noted Zucker. “And that could be advantageous to both the audience and ourselves.”

The next initiative falls in the traditional May upfront selling season, which might exclude the normally splashy programming presentation that always kicks off the May week at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

“The way we sell the inventory at the upfront will not change,” said Zucker. “But every year the big concern falls on how fast the presentation of our new schedule can be over. And there might be a better way to present our lineup to advertisers. What matters is the new schedule and the rationale behind it. We have not made any final decisions, but we are very close.”

In the absence of the Winter Press Tour, a biannual gathering where media critics from across the country assemble for interviews with the network executives and series’ stars and creators, Zucker is also looking to shake up the traditional model.

“We did not have the Winter Press Tour for the first time in decades and our ratings in the first quarter are stronger than they have been in years,” noted Zucker. “With that in mind, we need to reassess what our future involvement may or may not be with the tour.”

Concerning the growing digital revolution: “We are in the middle of a wrenching analog-to-digital transition, marked by game-changing technological developments and noticeable shifts in consumer behavior,” noted Zucker. “All of that demands a reengineering of our businesses from top to bottom, both at the network level and at local stations. The bottom line is we value our business and our strategic partnerships, and we recognize the importance of shifting into this new era of broadcasting.”