NBC Upfront: 'Blacklist' Push, Late-Night Dominance and 4 More Takeaways

Bob Greenblatt NBC Upfronts - P 2014
Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Bob Greenblatt NBC Upfronts - P 2014

NBC execs trotted on stage at the Javits Center Monday with a singular message to share with media buyers: We're No. 1.

It was an unfamiliar status for the network, which heads into the 2014-15 season at the top of the ratings for the first time in a decade. Opening the upfront, Late Night host Seth Meyers, whose snarky introduction rivaled ABC upfront veteran Jimmy Kimmel, admitted that he was "at a loss" for material since NBC is no longer the punching bag it once was.

A comedian's NBC upfront intro historically has meant coming "on stage and make fun of how badly the network has done," noted Meyers, who added that unlike previous years NBC has bested not only its broadcast competition but also a slew of other networks, including "Univision, MTV tres, Lifetime, second Lifetime, and the Holiday Inn checkout information channel." (The host took jabs at the Javits locale instead, quipping at one point that the convention center was at the "heart of New York's historic stabbing district.")

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Over the course of the nearly two hours that followed, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt and NBC's president of ad sales Linda Yaccarino used the platform to tout its growth and plans to stay on top thanks to events, sports and reality hit The Voice.

Here are the key takeaways:

1. We're No. 1, and We Plan to Stay There

"We're No. 1," said Greenblatt, shortly after taking the podium, adding of the network's status: "Get ready, you're going to hear it a lot more." He wasn't kidding, and you can hardly blame him. After nearly a decade languishing in fourth place, NBC is No. 1 in the key 18-49 demo, up 17 percent in C3, thanks to such shows as Sunday Night Football, The Voice and drama breakout The Blacklist. 

Greenblatt was careful to note that his net would be No. 1 even without the February Olympics boost, up a "healthy" eight percent. The other nets? All even or down for the season. "You do the math," he said with self-satisfaction. He also stressed that his network planned to stay atop the Nielsen rankings going forward care of his bosses Steve Burke and Comcast chief Brian Roberts' "investment in programming" -- to say nothing of an "incredible Olympics deal" that keeps the ratings bonanza going at NBC through 2032. 

2. 'The Blacklist' Has Staying Power

‎While The Voice remains a juggernaut about which NBC is thrilled (hence what Meyers joked was a five-times-a-year airing pattern), The Blacklist garnered more plugs during the NBC presentation than any other show. In addition to a well-received pre-taped bit from enigmatic star James Spader, Greenblatt and Yaccarino talked often about its ratings (the Spader vehicle is the No. 1 new show) and its potential to rebuild NBC's storied-but-ailing Thursday night lineup when it moves there in February.

No surprise, the drama will get the plum post-Super Bowl slot, and Greenblatt revealed that the special episode will kick off a two-parter, with the second part airing four days later in Blacklist's new Thursday night time slot. (It's worth noting that Sony is having a particularly strong run at NBC. The studio is behind Blacklist, which has benefited from the Voice cover on Monday, and newcomer Marry Me, which will get Voice's Tuesday lead-in in the fall.)

3. Late-Night Dominance, Now and Going Forward

There was no mention of CBS' forthcoming late-night shakeup, but Greenblatt did use the upfront platform to ‎plug his own shows -- and the impressively smooth transition to get them there. With a one-two punch of Jimmy Fallon and Meyers, both of whom took the stage to crack jokes Monday, Greenblatt was able to highlight both shows’ youth appeal and increased reach. With Fallon, in particular, he said the host's YouTube clips have already garnered more than 350 million views since his Tonight Show launched, and that the show has aged down eight years.

4. Everything Is an Event

Greenblatt acknowledged that his network and others have become “obsessed” with event-izing, something he notes he’s guilty of doing with everything from live musicals to special episodes of scripted dramas -- and in a crowded landscape where “noisy” is key to standing out, he has no plans to slow down. In fact, he announced from the stage that he’d be following up on his Sound of Music live musical – which he joked people “rolled their eyes at up until the morning of Dec. 6, when the ratings came out” and NBC logged a massive 19 million tune-in – and forthcoming Peter Pan with a 2015 live rendition of The Music Man. He promoted forthcoming projects, including Emerald City, Odyssey and Mark Burnett's A.D., as "events" as well.

5. Sports Will Be Even Bigger on NBC Next Season

Sports was a hot topic throughout the presentation, from the success of the Winter Olympics in Sochi to No. 1 Sunday Night Football -- and upcoming Super Bowl XLIX in February, which will be supported by a full week of programming across NBCU platforms. With American Idol having fallen precipitously, NBC executives also noted that Sunday Night Football was among the few remaining destinations that boasts a big, broad family audience.

What's more, NBC Sports group chairman Mark Lazarus stressed the network's flex schedule, which allows it to select the best matchups for its SNF franchise, an important distinction as CBS rolls out eight games of Thursday Night Football, which historically have not offered the kind of marquee weekly contests that Sunday has. Driving home the emphasis on live sports in an increasingly time-shifted environment, Lazarus talked up the network's addition of a divisional playoff game and the Thanksgiving Day matchup -- a replay of the Super Bowl with champs Seattle Seahawks facing the San Francisco 49ers.

6. Olympics Will Drive Multiplatform Technology

If the significance of the Olympics was not already clear, Yaccarino walked out on  stage to the tune of NBC's Olympics theme music. And her presentation to advertisers was heavy on rhetoric about the network's signature sports platform. The company has partnered with Nielsen for a deep dive study on how viewers consumed the Sochi Winter Olympics, and those findings will inform future streaming and mobile technology at NBC -- of tantamount importance because the $7.75 billion six-game Olympics deal includes rights to all digital and streaming options, even those that have yet to be conceived.

"For the past three seasons NBC has bucked the trend," she said of primetime viewership, stressing that NBC has made "critical investments in analytics and technology" that promise advertisers addressability and better return on investment -- a welcome declaration for buyers faced with a dizzying array of content options and often dubious measurement tools. Yaccarino will be back on stage at least one more time this week, when she makes the collective cable portfolio pitch at the NBCU cable upfront Thursday.