Prime-Time Pain Plagues NBC

NEW YORK NBC’s fall season lineup in prime time has stumbled badly out of the starting gate and some media buyers are concerned that if the network experiences a steep ratings shortfall, it will not have any quality make goods to offer their clients.

Through the first 10 days of the season, NBC is down 15 percent in viewers and 16 percent in the key adults 18-49 demographic. More ominously, those declines include its highest-rated shows — and if Sunday Night Football ratings are taken out of the equation, the dropoff is that much steeper. Top-rated past performers such as Heroes and Law & Order: SVU are down between 20-40 percent in viewers and in adults 18-49 compared to their premieres last season. Moreover, Heroes declined another 500,000 viewers and 10 percent in the 18-49 demo from its premiere to its second episode.

“This is one of the network’s hottest shows and it received so much promotion — from the Olympics to when it premiered –and its premiere audience was so disappointing,” said one buyer, who did not want to speak for attribution. “NBC may be the first broadcast network to finish in fourth place in a year when it has the Super Bowl,” cautioned Shari Anne Brill, executive vp, programming for Carat. “Advertisers like to be in quality scripted programming because viewers engage with those shows very differently from reality shows. NBC has relied too much on plugging holes with reality. Adding three hours of Biggest Loser and more Deal or No Deal is not the way to revitalize.”

But NBC insiders said despite the overall declines, the ratings guaranteed in packages to advertisers in the upfront are not that far off from what has been delivered. And some of the shows are meeting advertiser needs that aren’t reflected in pure ratings results. For example, while finishing last in its time period in viewers and adults 18-49 with a 2.0 rating, Lipstick Jungle had the highest percentage of upscale viewers in the time period, noted Mitch Metcalf, evp, programming, planning and scheduling for NBC.

Some media agency executives, however, are on the fence. “While the early trend is troubling, NBC still has many shows both returning and new to premiere,” said John Rash, svp and director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun. Yet to debut are My Own Worst Enemy, Kath & Kim, 30 Rock and Crusoe. “In the short term, NBC will also be helped by its Thursday-night Saturday Night Live election spoof specials,” Rash added.

But even with all those caveats, Rash concluded that “NBC in the long term needs to create new hits.”

Patience is being called for by others, at least for now. “Any advertiser who committed money to NBC in the upfront wasn’t expecting the network to turn things around by October. It’s harder to go from fourth to first than it is to go from first to fourth,” said John Swift, evp and managing partner, activation at PHD. He added, though, that if NBC’s double-digit declines continue through November, there will be blood. Metcalf echoed the call for patience in light of the still unseen new shows. He also stressed that many of NBC’s shows are heavily recorded for later viewing and those numbers are not showing up in the early ratings, which are primarily live and live-plus-same-day ratings.

“Heroes is a heavily time-shifted show and so is The Office,” Metcalf said. “We don’t even have those C3 ratings yet. And we have had all the viewer distractions with the debates. Things will settle down in the next few weeks and viewers will get back into their normal TV habits.” But one media buyer said Metcalf better be right. “Right now it’s only 10 days, but if this trend continues, NBC is in for some real problems.”