Zucker Expects $3.9 Bil. Upfront

NEW YORK NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker on Thursday said he expected the media conglomerate’s broadcast and cable networks would take in a combined $3.9 billion in upfront revenue, about the same haul the company pulled in last year.

In an address to financial analysts, Zucker said that while NBC’s prime-time share of adults 18-49 has dropped to a 2.4 rating from a broadcast-leading 3.7 three years ago, the bleeding has been stanched.

“We just finished in fourth place and that’s unacceptable,” Zucker said. “But the worst is behind us.”

Zucker said broadcast prime only accounts for 5-10 percent of NBCU’s operating profit, which plummeted from $900 million in 2004 to $100 million this year. “We’ve already taken the big hit … but it’s not the drag on our bottom line that you’d think it is,” he said.

NBCU’s presentation was held just a day after the company announced the close of the $1 billion upfront deal with GroupM that kick-started the TV marketplace. Although Zucker was stingy with the details, he did say that his sales team “set the template” for the broadcast industry with the deal, which was the first to pair commercial ratings guarantees with Nielsen Media Research live-plus-three-day DVR ratings.

“Pricing is positive on both the network and the cable sides,” Zucker said, adding that the deal did not include Olympics or sports. “It just so happened that GroupM didn’t have any Olympics clients,” Zucker said.

The NBCU chief said he expects to unload around 75 percent of the broadcast inventory in the upfront, on par with last year’s numbers. Cable is expected to sell off 50 percent of its ad time.

The meeting, which unfolded over the course of four hours Thursday afternoon, was an opportunity for Zucker’s key lieutenants to give analysts an overview of their segments while offering some insights into what’s in the works for the next several quarters. There was one significant no-show in Ben Silverman, who last month, along with Marc Graboff, was named co-chair of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio.

“Part of the reason Ben is not here today is that he’s already at work trying to ensure that [the ratings turnaround] won’t take 12 to 18 months,” Zucker said.

Graboff was on hand for the presentation, offering a preview of NBC’s remake of The Bionic Woman alongside Katherine Pope, president of the newly rechristened Universal Media Studios.

One likely bright spot for NBCU is the 2008 Olympiad, which will be held next summer in Beijing, China. Because Dick Ebersol has been successful in lobbying the IOC to secure morning schedules for the local starting times of popular events like swimming and gymnastics—thereby ensuring that they’ll be seen live in prime time in the U.S.—NBCU should be able to sidestep the lackluster ratings that have beset other Olympiads hosted by distant nations.

Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports & Olympics, said that “55 to 60 percent of the Games will be seen live in prime time, which is just dandy.”

All told, NBCU will carry some 2,600 hours of Olympic competition, spreading its coverage across the broadcast net, USA Network (and its high-definition simulcast), CNBC, MSNBC, Telemundo and Universal HD.