Nets Prime the Pump

Broadcast networks unveil ambitious slates

Trying to gauge the quality of a 22-episode television series by watching three minutes of foot-age culled from the pilot is akin to declaring your major when you’re in kindergarten. And yet, this is what media buyers and clients do every year in May, when the five English-language broadcast networks host their respective up-front presentations in New York.

Sure, even an untrained eye can spot a stinker from the cheap seats in Avery Fisher Hall. Last year, an audible groan rose up after ABC teased the cross-dressing comedy series Work It, an outburst that was followed in short order by a good deal of nervous giggling. But a hit? That’s another story altogether.

Only a handful of new series really seemed to distinguish themselves this year, a limited roster that includes NBC’s apocalyptic drama Revolution, CBS’ cops, mobsters and casinos period piece Vegas and the Fox midseason thriller The Following.

On the comedy front, clients are abuzz about Matthew Perry’s latest NBC effort Go On and Fox’s The Mindy Project, a tour de force created by Mindy Kaling.

This could all change once the pilots begin circulating in a week or so, a deluge that coincides with the period in which clients will begin registering their TV budgets. And even if the National Football League is the only must-buy on the tube, most clients still tend to invest in individual series.

“The programming mix is still a priority,” said Chris Geraci, president of national broadcast, OMD. “Some clients are more concerned with atmospherics and the particular programming environment, and of course we often have our own reasons for aligning brands with certain shows.”

Analysts believe the 2012-13 marketplace should be healthy, though it’s unlikely it will top last year. For one thing, scatter is nowhere near as strong as it was in the first and second quarters of 2011. And in the absence of registered budgets, trying to estimate demand is a matter of guesswork.

“Across all the agencies at SMG, we’re having a more difficult time getting confirmed, approved budgets from clients,” said John Muszynski, chief investment officer, Starcom MediaVest Group Exchange. “We probably won’t get a gauge on where the budgets will be until after Memorial Day weekend, and until that happens, we won’t have a handle on where pricing will be.”

Muszynski added that while it’s possible a few early deals could close before the end of the month, they would likely be “protection deals,” holds placed without establishing any actual pricing.

While it’s too early to predict exactly how the upfront will play out, the smart money says Fox will kick-start the market. “They’ll go out early to the auto and studio categories,” Muszynski said.

For his part, Geraci believes that there’s one surefi re way to get the ball rolling: “The network that goes for share and not price could move very quickly.”


The most beleaguered broadcast net hangs its hopes on Christina Aguilera and a monkey.

Leading off the Peacock’s exhaustive—and exhausting—upfront pitch, NBC broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert on Monday threw cold water on the proceedings, delaying the start of the morning’s entertainment in order to lecture the Radio City crowd on the industry’s outdated currency.

“The conversion of the sales metric to C3 a few years ago was an important fi rst step” in getting a handle on time-shifted viewing, Harbert told the assembled, before adding that live commercial ratings plus three days of DVR playback don’t provide a full picture of American viewing habits. “When you consider the fact that over one-third of all prime-time programs have at least 40 percent of their weekly viewing time- shifted, it’s time to consider moving to a C7 metric,” he said.

If Harbert’s words seem a challenge to parse now, they weren’t much clearer in real time. Beyond the thicket of knotty math (what exactly is 40 percent of one-third?), the Ted Talk struck a discordant note with media buyers on hand.

“He picked a really odd time to bring that up,” said Sam Armando, svp, director of strategic intelligence at Starcom MediaVest Group Exchange. “NBC had a lot to convey about their programming and it’s a shame that nine out of 10 people who walked out of there were talking about C3 versus C7 rather than, say, Revolution.” While Harbert is correct to point out that the ratings system is far from ideal, C7 is a nonstarter. Ninety-eight percent of prime-time viewing takes place within the first three days of playback, a majority that effectively renders the additional four days of little consequence. 

Even Harbert seemed to recognize that there are better ways to warm up a crowd.

Before handing off to entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, Harbert acknowledged the audience’s forbearance. “Thank you for putting up with my sermon,” he said. “I think I just proved that I’m the worst opening act ever.”

With 10 comedies on the roster, including four new entries set to premiere in September, NBC is practically doubling down on sitcoms. In the fall of 2011, the network had six comedies on its prime-time schedule, though that number would dwindle to five with the Oct. 5 cancelation of Free Agents.

The crowd reacted generously to clips from the new batch of comedies, with the biggest laughs being doled out for the Matthew Perry vehicle Go On and the antic Justin Kirk effort Animal Practice. NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke noted that Kirk’s co-star Crystal, which plays “a bundle of mischief named Dr. Zaius,” was the highest-testing new NBC character of this development season. (For the uninitiated, Crystal is a capuchin monkey.)

The new comedies will air on consecutive nights, with Go On leading into The New Normal on Tuesdays and Animal Practice setting the table for the family comedy Guys With Kids on Wednesday. This is emblematic of NBC’s new high-risk strategy; slotting freshman comedies back-to-back is a big gamble, as it’s a long-held notion that the most effective way to build an audience for a new strip is to place a familiar sitcom before it.

If NBC has anything resembling a sure-fire hit, it’s Perry’s Go On. The man who inhabited Chandler Bing for 10 seasons can still open a series— even the slipshod ABC comedy Mr. Sunshine enjoyed strong sampling out of the gate—and those who have seen the entire pilot say that it features the actor’s strongest comedic work since Friends.

Meanwhile, almost anything is bound to be an improvement on this season’s Wednesday night schedule, a weak stew of low-rated series like Up All Night and Whitney and flatliners like Free Agents, Are You There, Chelsea? and Bent. For the last two months, Geriatric Jackass, aka Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, has been responsible for NBC’s biggest midweek deliveries—but even it scored a 1.6 in the demo.

The one night NBC seems to have suffered a failure of nerve is on Thursdays, which Greenblatt and Salke essentially left fallow. Sure, The Office is the network’s top-rated scripted series, and shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation draw a particularly well-heeled demo. But with nary a new series on the night and the quiet shrug that is Rock Center With Brian Williams effectively serving as a newsy test pattern at 10 o’clock (the peripatetic series is averaging 3.82 million viewers and a 0.9 in the demo—this in the time slot that once housed ER), there appears to be no way for NBC to actually grow its ratings on this high-demand night.

Thus far, the most buzzworthy new NBC drama is J.J. Abrams’ Revolution, which inherits the plum post-Voice slot from Smash. Also earning a production credit on Revolution is Supernatural creator Eric Kripke. Networked Insights lead analyst Sean Reckwerdt says Kripke is “generating the majority of the positive viewer interest” in Revolution.

With the monolithic Sunday Night Football set to kick off in September and a fall cycle of The Voice in the works, NBC has two huge nights lined up. And a Tuesday results segment of the singers-in-spinning-chairs hit should draw new blood to a night that had been given over to a dwindling Biggest Loser.

Make no mistake: The industry is rooting for an NBC rebound. “It’s in the best interest of everyone that they turn it around,” said one national TV buyer, adding there’s an undeniably sentimental element that informs the NBC conversation. “We grew up on NBC,” the buyer said. “Our clients grew up on NBC. We all want this to work out.”