Q&A: Magna’s Steve Sternberg

Judging from the networks’ development slates, you wouldn’t know there was a recession, says Steve Sternberg, evp, audience analysis at Magna, a unit of Interpublic Group’s Mediabrands. And while the nets have been upfront about their determination to be more cost-efficient in producing shows, Sternberg says whatever they’re cutting back on doesn’t appear to be affecting on-screen quality. In fact, he says, judging from the pilots and clips he’s seen so far, he’s more impressed with the nets’ overall development effort this year than he has been in several years.

In the following Q&A, Sternberg assesses each network’s offerings, commercial retention strategies and the implications of the Jay Leno move.

Among the major broadcast networks, whose development slate impressed you the most and why? And the least impressive?
Each network had at least two new shows we like. So I would say all were more impressive than the past couple of years.

Which net has the best commercial-retention strategies and why?

The best commercial-retention strategies are largely on the cable networks. Fox’s Remote-Free TV stands out as a good experiment.

Are you referring to certain cable networks or is that a fact about cable based on ratings or other data?

Well, while the broadcast networks tend to actually retain their viewers better overall, several cable networks have better specific strategies in terms of experimenting with pod-buster-type things and researching how best to keep viewers tuned in.

Fox said it’s Remote Free TV experiment with smaller commercial loads in certain shows would not continue this season. Is that disappointing given your research which showed the trial did improve audience retention to spots?

It is disappointing to a degree, but they are going to do it on a more limited basis, and we like to think our research might have contributed to that.

Fox’s smartest move and its riskiest?

Putting So You Think You Can Dance on Tuesday and Wednesday in the fall was both the smartest and riskiest move.
An advertiser, Subway, essentially saved Chuck on NBC by stepping up with a major sponsorship for next season. Is that kind of advertiser involvement in scheduling good for the business? Are we likely to see more of it going forward as financial considerations increasingly are deciding the fates of programs?

If more advertisers step up with this type of involvement, it will probably be good for the industry, since it is more likely to be done with quality shows than junk. And the resulting press might actually get more people to tune in. But it has to be the right show for the right advertiser.

NBC says it will succeed if can get a modest-size audience to tune in just a couple of times a week, while ABC and CBS both say the move gives them an opportunity to boost their 10 p.m. audience shares. Can everybody win here?

Yes.  Except, of course, program suppliers.

How risky is NBC’s move of Jay Leno to 10 p.m across the week for the network?

Risky is not really the right word. Financially, it can easily work. Programming-wise, Fox has been very successful with an 8-10 p.m. lineup. We’re just not used to seeing that with one of the original Big Three.

Roughly how big an audience at 10 p.m. does Leno have to garner to succeed in your view.

Somewhere between how it performs now in late night and how its 10 p.m. series perform. But keep in mind, except for Law & Order: SVU, NBC has had problems at 10 p.m.

If Leno works, is it just a matter of time before we see additional prime-time network strips?