TV Upfronts: Five Takeaways From NBC's Presentation
Sports is very important; Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon really do like each other; "big guns" Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes define NBC's new comedy brand.
The network of quirky comedies and cerebral niche dramas made a pitch to Madison Avenue to become the network of broad family comedy as well as crime and law enforcement procedurals Monday. “But we think that's a good thing,” said NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. “As long as the stakes are high and the characters are compelling.” Of course, the latter remains to be seen. But the signal NBC executives sent to media buyers gathered at Radio City Music Hall for the lengthy presentation (it clocked in at a little less than two hours) was that they will attempt to put the “broad” back in broadcasting. There were no shortage of reminders that Sunday Night Football is a powerhouse. (But with the cancellation of Rock Center With Brian Williams, the only presence NBC News had was a cameo from Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie in the clip for The Michael J. Fox Show.) NBCUniversal ad sales president Linda Yaccarino, the former Turner executive who was hired by NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, talked up the $23 billion investment in the company -- and the integrated marketing opportunities across the broadcast, cable and digital assets -- by noting that "two years ago, NBC was just a tiny part of GE, and today, under the leadership of Comcast, NBCUniversal is a different kind of company." Here are five takeaways from the NBC upfront presentation.
1. NBC executives feel our upfront pain: NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert opened the presentation with an attempt to ingratiate the network to the upfront-fatigued crowd by reminding the assembled media buyers that there already have been 70 upfront presentations that began as far back as February. And that, he said, “has to be too many.” Indeed. “There are 18 upfronts this week alone!,” Harbert exclaimed. That's because more cable networks are encroaching on what once was the exclusive domain of the broadcast networks. USA will hold its second upfront at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday, closing out the week. Turner has had its presentation on the third day of the broadcast upfront week for several years. And Spanish-language broadcasters Univision and Telemundo as well as sports giant ESPN also throw star-studded presentations this week. Of course, the proliferation of presentations -- including the second annual digital NewFronts this year -- underscores the broadcast networks' dispersal of ratings points. And that's a point that cable and Spanish-language executives will be sure to hit on later this week.
2. Sports is really, really important: NBCUniversal Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus introduced Sunday Night Football as the “No. 1 show on television” and “a cornerstone of the NBC primetime schedule.” He also noted that Sunday night preshow Football Night in America is a top 10 show in the fall and doubles the ratings of all other pregame shows. Of course, Sunday Night Football (and The Voice) helped NBC to a rare first-place finish in the fall. But by the first quarter this year, the network again was in the ratings basement and finished February No. 5 behind Univision. Or, as NBCUni Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt put it: “We ... had a challenging first quarter and our share of midseason disappointments.” But next season, NBC will have the 2014 Winter Olympics to lift its ratings fortunes in the first quarter. [The Summer Games pull in bigger audiences than the Winter Games, but they air outside the networks September-through-May season.] And the Sochi Games will be supersized, with 12 new events (including ski and snowboard slopestyle and snowboard parallel special slalom) and an extra day of competition; NBC's coverage will begin Feb. 6, a day before the opening ceremony.
3. NBC is determined to have a smooth late-night transition: Greenblatt even thanked the assembled audience for “having a sense of humor about late-night.” And he did not mean the antics on the screen. Any Tonight Show transition inevitably will conjure comparisons to the extraordinary histrionics of the aborted Conan O'Brien-to-Jay Leno transition. But NBC has its troops in line this time. And Leno and Jimmy Fallon, who will take over as the host of a New York-based Tonight Show after the Winter Olympics, performed another musical duet to show that Leno was all good with the transition. This one was a rendition of the Les Miserables ballad "One Day More," with the chorus replaced with "Eight Months More," as in eight months until Fallon reaches his "final destiny." Some choice lines -- Fallon: “Jay's really going to leave this time.” Jay: “But NBC will be just fine. Who knows, they might just be Univision.” Fallon: “Bob Greenblatt makes good decisions." Leno: “What about Ready for Love?”
4. NBC still believes in pilot testing even after Animal Practice: This time last year, Greenblatt introduced the Justin Kirk comedy Animal Practice by noting that series co-star Crystal the Capuchin monkey was the highest-testing character of the season. On Monday, he said the network's upcoming comedies -- including The Michael J. Fox Show and the Sean Hayes vehicle Sean Saves the World -- tested better than anything in years. And he doubled down by adding that The Blacklist -- where James Spader as an FBI profiler-turned-traitor who comes in from the cold clearly is riffing on Anthony Hopkins' diabolical Hannibal Lechter -- was the highest-testing NBC drama in 10 years. Here's hoping this year's testing is a little more accurate than last year.
5. NBC is banking on familiar faces to carry its comedy brand: Hayes, the breakout star of NBC's classic Thursday night sitcom Will & Grace, and Fox are NBC's "big guns," as Greenblatt described them. And they have their work cut out for them with their respective half-hours Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show, the linchpins on Thursday night next season that also will include new comedy Welcome to the Family. Fox will play a version of himself, a Parkinson's-afflicted New York newscaster who decides to go back to work, much to the delight of his family. And Hayes plays a gay divorced father of a teen girl, with Alice's Linda Lavin as his acerbic mom. Both clips earned positive response from the packed house at Radio City as Hayes and Fox showed gathered media buyers why they became breakout TV stars in the first place.