NBC Tries a New Tack for 8 P.M.
As part of an extensive cost-cutting program it announced yesterday, NBC intends to drastically alter its prime-time programming, starting in the fall of 2007, filling the 8 p.m. hour each weeknight with lower-cost, unscripted programs and saving its more expensive comedies and dramas for the 9-to-11 p.m. block.
That will be probably the most noticeable change NBC will put into effect as a result of a cost-reduction plan it is labeling TV 2.0, in deference to its focus on the changes being wrought by the expansion of digital media. NBC Universal will cut about 700 jobs companywide, or about 5 percent of its work force. It expects to save about $750 million under the plan, and intends to make those cuts by the end of 2007.
Some of the savings are expected to come in reduced costs for the 8 p.m. hour, Jeff Zucker, the chief executive of the NBC Universal Television Group, said. One major impetus for the move, Mr. Zucker said, is the upheaval TV networks face because of ever-increasing incursions from digital media like Internet sites.
But some of NBC’s competitors argued that NBC was simply reacting to its own consistent failure to find scripted programs that worked at 8 p.m. The network has struggled to find hit shows for that first hour of prime time; that weakness contributed significantly to NBC’s free fall from first place to last in the ratings three seasons ago.
Now, Mr. Zucker said, NBC would try less expensive reality and game shows at that hour, like “Deal or No Deal,” which has been a success for the network on Mondays at 8.
Mr. Zucker contended, though, that the decision had less to do with penny-pinching than pragmatism. “It was what the audience was asking for,” he said. “Look at ‘Survivor’ on CBS and ‘Extreme Home Makeover’ on ABC and ‘American Idol’ on Fox.” All those unscripted shows have been hits at 8 p.m. while most of NBC’s efforts to find hits at that hour with scripted shows have languished.
Bob Wright, the NBC chairman, said, “Nobody has tried harder than we have to put on quality shows at 8. This year we tried ‘30 Rock,’ which is about the funniest show on television right now, but the audience just hasn’t gravitated to it.”
Some scripted shows on other networks have worked at 8, though. CBS has a continuing success in “NCIS”; ABC has a growing hit in “Ugly Betty”; Fox has a steady performer in “Prison Break.” This fall Fox moved one of its biggest hits, “House,” to 8 on Tuesday and it has soared in the ratings.
Both Mr. Zucker and Mr. Wright argued that the overwhelming evidence is that audiences prefer lighter, unscripted — and thus less expensive — fare at 8. “ABC is doing it everywhere,” Mr. Wright noted, citing that network’s addition of college football on Saturday night this season to unscripted shows like “Dancing With the Stars” and “Wife Swap.”
NBC experienced an enormous falloff in revenues after its ratings slide, and the move to limit the kinds of shows it will spend money on raises questions about how much of the plan came down to financial pressures exerted by its parent company, General Electric.
Mr. Zucker said, “I would hope we would be doing this whether we were in first place or last place in prime time.”
About the business model that bases almost all of a network’s revenues on income from its advertising clients, Mr. Zucker said, “I don’t know if it is irreparably broken, but the economic model is under a tremendous amount of pressure.”
The risk in sending such a message, Mr. Wright conceded, is that supporters of that model could begin to lose faith in it. “We have to try to preserve as much of those revenues as we can while trying to generate additional digital revenues,” he said.
More expensive shows like “Friday Night Lights” will run during the 9-to-11 p.m. block.
One advertising industry executive, Steven J. Farella, president of TargetCast TCM, said of NBC’s plan to reshape the 8 p.m. hour, “The role of network TV is to retain and grow audiences.” To Mr. Farella, NBC’s plan looked as if the network wanted to “maximize profit at the expense of audience growth.”
Mr. Farella added, “We want them to swing a big hammer for clients who need to move products quickly.”
Another ad executive, Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Deutsch in New York, defended NBC’s strategy. “It’s what a lot of mature businesses are doing in the media industry,” he said. “They’ve got to change their operations.”
The decision underlines how big an issue “the cost of content relative to revenue” is becoming for media giants, Mr. Gardiner said.
Other network executives challenged NBC’s rationale, saying it was less about a sweeping trend and more about one network’s problems.
“Broadcast television is in very good shape,” said Nina Tassler, the president of CBS Entertainment.
“Our revenues are up. Broadcast television is still the epicenter of content,” she added, and “part of what we endeavor to do is manage and contain those costs.”
Peter Liguori, president of entertainment for the Fox network, said that cutting back content creation was not the way to go. “We’d rather spend money on content, which eventually can feed all these additional digital channels,” he said.
Still, Stephen McPherson, president of entertainment for ABC, agreed that rising program costs were forcing changes in the business.
“We pour amazing amounts of money into the incredible high-quality shows,” he said. “We have to figure out ways to produce stuff of a real quality level at a lower cost.”