NBC plans to cover its ads

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NBC Universal on Tuesday officially did away with its traditional upfront presentation, instead highlighting one-on-one contact with Madison Avenue and mapping out a year-round programming schedule.

There still will be an event in mid-May but it will be a less formal party with none of the Radio City Music Hall-style pomp and circumstance of years past. NBC's decision comes several days after its rivals' decisions to go ahead with upfront presentations in mid-May, though probably in the stripped-down and shortened format that prevailed last year.

NBC Entertainment co-chairman Marc Graboff told The Hollywood Reporter that it's part of a larger effort to streamline the process and make it more efficient for advertisers, programmers and NBC Uni itself.

The network will announce its schedule in April, then NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman and Graboff will spend the next three days meeting with ad buyers and advertisers in New York to explain the schedule and seek input. The sales force will visit New York, Los Angeles and Chicago for a series of meetings to discuss opportunities. Then, finally, there will be a get-together May 12 where the company will talk about its wide range of TV, digital and even "green" properties at a party somewhere in Manhattan.

One of the more controversial aspects of the plan is the idea of bringing advertisers and ad buyers into the programming process earlier than usual. Graboff acknowledged that there could be concerns — "NYPD Blue" might not have gotten off the ground, for instance, if advertisers had a significant input into programming decisions — but said the network is not going to be taking dictation from advertisers but instead merely wants to involve them in the process.

"I don't want anybody to think that we're going to be taking notes from the advertisers in how to do our shows," Graboff said. "But on the other hand, research is a tool for us that we use in formulating our programming and content and advertisers' opinions are another tool."

NBC Uni sales chief Mike Pilot agreed, saying advertisers aren't going to be taking a programming role but do want to be able to talk to the programmers about opportunities. One of the concerns he has heard is a fear that a network will program a drama in a time period but, when that doesn't work, schedule reality instead. The 52-week schedule, for instance, can help alleviate advertisers' concerns, Pilot said.

"Schedules are prone to changes," Pilot said. "Our clients understand that and they've asked to be part of that dialogue as opposed to being a recipient of the decision."

Key to the advertisers' look is not necessarily programming changes but instead ways that advertising and sponsorship can be integrated into upcoming programs.

"My expectation of the face-to-face meetings are that they will come in wanting to partner with my client's ad looking for ways to fit naturally," said Jackie Kulesza, vp and video activation director of Chicago-based Starcom USA. "We don't want to force anything. The goal of these meetings isn't just to show us the schedule but how we can work together to reach the consumer."

What there won't be in mid-May is a traditional upfront that has in NBC's case been held mostly at Radio City Music Hall and in one case stretched more than three hours. This one will be speedy and will be for all of NBC Uni, not just the broadcast network. A maximum of two executives will speak to the crowd of ad buyers, advertisers and journalists.

"We will celebrate our relationships just like we do every year. … But it will be set in the context of a total NBC Universal showcase or experience," Pilot said.

Graboff said he has a working draft of the network's schedule through summer 2009, which is much earlier than ever before.

"We know with as much certainty as we have ever known" what will be on the schedule, Graboff said. There's still the caveat that some shows will not work and other changes might be made but it's a quicker start than in previous years.

"In years past we have woken up Monday morning not knowing exactly what our fall schedule is going to be," Graboff said. This time around, it's going to be easier because the networks are going to return more shows with the belief that they didn't get a chance to grow before the writers strike took them off the air. But Graboff hopes that NBC Uni's changes to pilot season and development in general will provide greater visibility.

"I'm hoping in subsequent years we will have a pipeline primed year-round so that we will not be seeing new product two weeks before but we'll be seeing new product year-round," he said.

But what's good for the broadcasters isn't necessarily the way to go for NBC Uni's cable outlets, which will go ahead with their plans for individual upfronts. Pilot said that the cable networks are, in a way, a model for the broadcast network as the channels have traditionally done "similar, earlier, deeper looks into their programming on more of a 52-week basis."

Reaction from the ad-buying community was mixed, with plaudits for trying to do something different but at least one buyer wondering if this was the way to go. The buyers had some inkling that this was going to happen, as the network had been trying to organize the one-on-one meetings with Graboff and Silverman for early April.

"I'm open to any ideas in how to do business more efficiently and in a better manner," said one ad buyer who asked not to be named. "It's hard to see how it's going to make the process better, though."
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