Broadcasters Think Outside the Schedule

NBC leads the way, but other nets also challenging TV tradition

It’s no secret the rules guiding network television are changing. NBC’s decision to launch its fall lineup ahead of schedule, announced at last week’s Television Critics Tour here, is further proof of that. But NBC is not the only network to address TV’s shifting landscape.

In the face of persistent ratings drops, at least three of the other major networks are also challenging some of the industry’s most widely held assumptions (CBS and UPN held press sessions over the weekend).

Still, the week’s most sensational news was from NBC: Immediately following its Aug. 13-29 broadcast of the Summer Olympics, the network will launch most of its fall schedule, putting it two to three weeks ahead of the season’s traditional premiere week. “We are not going to let the calendar dictate when the season starts,” Jeff Zucker, NBC Entertainment, News and Cable Group president, told critics and reporters. Although he stopped short of pronouncing the fall’s traditional start dead, Zucker said all the broadcasters are moving in NBC’s direction. “Clearly, there is an evolution going on in television, and all the old rules are changing right now,” he said.

Viewing patterns are prompting the change, noted John Rash, svp, director of broadcast negotiations at Interpublic Group’s Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis. TV audiences “have broken down the traditional business model that was dependent on repeats in the summer and fresh episodes during sweeps,” he said.

With the breakdown of that model, networks are working toward programming year-round. Garth Ancier, co-chairman of The WB, suggested the possibility of airing series for 22- week stretches, showing each episode twice a week because “you’ve got to pay for the show.”

But 22 weeks may be too long a run, said Lloyd Braun, chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group. In a climate crowded with entertainment options, Braun said ABC is focusing on more limited series, such as the eight-episode ancient-Rome drama Empire, scheduled for the fall. “We can make them a big event,” he said. “The viewer doesn’t have the daunting challenge of saying, ‘How am I going to be invested all year long?’ ”

Pointing to HBO’s success with a similar programming strategy, ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne added: “There are some different ways we need to be looking at our programming and scheduling model, and not just do it the way it’s always been done.”

Limited series could encourage flexibility with the season’s calendar. “Maybe you start to shift a night of programming from January to August,” suggested WB co-CEO Jordan Levin.

Such shifts will likely affect how advertising is bought and sold. More first-run summer programming could boost sales of beer and soda, for example. “Marketers have key sales periods,” Rash noted. “Some will be helped by an earlier start to the season, some will be hindered by an earlier end to the season.”

Year-round programming will also affect the networks’ development and production schedules. Talent contracts will need to be altered as well, a change Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman said already has taken place at her network, one of the first to initiate year-round programming. “What we have done is the wave of the future,” she said.

If all the networks move up their premieres to compete with NBC, the traditional ratings season will change as well. “The new season starts whenever a majority of the networks’ new episodes of returning programs come back [after the summer],” said Jack Loftus, svp, communications for Nielsen Media Research. Nielsen’s Policy Guidelines Committee will meet in a few weeks to discuss the start of the new season, he added.

Innovative scheduling alone, however, is unlikely to solve broadcasters’ ratings woes. “Scheduling is only one piece of the puzzle,” noted Kathryn Thomas, associate director of Starcom Entertainment in Chicago. “It still comes down to content.”

And one rival network exec claimed NBC’s move was prompted more by its loss next season of Friends and Frasier than by a new vision for the network. “NBC is doing this to take the spotlight off the first two weeks of their regular-season ratings,” the exec said. “It’s a great strategy for a network that knows it is going to slip next season.”