'All-American Summer' for NBC

Net packs slate with 300 hours led by reality competitions

With nearly 300 hours of summer programming on the line, NBC is ramping up its marketing efforts for its "All-American Summer."

The network has doubled its number of original summer programming hours and its marketing budget in an attempt to shake up the postseason ratings race. Although currently in fourth place, NBC hopes its packed reality slate and the presentation of the Beijing Olympic Games might be enough to overthrow three-time summer ratings winner Fox. Any audience gains also will help NBC sling more viewers into its fall schedule.

NBC's media campaign kicked off Friday with a press tour in Pasadena, where wandering gladiators, baby borrowers and circus performers promoted the network's largely reality-driven summer lineup. Starting May 12, the public lobbying and "All-American" branding will unfold with stunts such as a backyard BBQ-style event in Times Square.

"We're spending about twice as much as last year and have the most original programming that any network has ever had during the summer," said NBC chief marketing officer John Miller. "It's a significant effort, and we're having a lot of fun with it."

NBC has scheduled 287 original hours, including eight series. By comparison, CBS is planning about 90 hours, which is a record-breaker for that network.

"Especially with what's happening with the economy, we think people will spending more time at home and craving something great to watch," said Craig Plestis, NBC's executive vp alternative programming.

Last year, NBC's "America's Got Talent" was the summer's top-rated show. But Fox typically wins the summer race overall, led by "So You Think You Can Dance." Given how much reality programming began to dominate NBC's schedule at the onset of the WGA strike, the network hopes maintaining a packed reality schedule will avoid the usual summer ratings plummet.

"We're in an on-demand culture, and people are not going to sit around for three months waiting for programming to come back," said Mark Koops, managing director of Reveille, whose "Nashville Star" and "American Gladiators" are among NBC's summer lineup. "People are always looking for great television, and you can help build momentum toward the fall."

NBC's lineup has shows expected to be ratings draws, including "Talent" and "Gladiators," but there's a few question marks as well.

With CBS' "Secret Talents of the Stars" winking out after only a single episode, how will viewers respond to a seemingly easy critic target like "Celebrity Circus"?

"I don't consider this to be like 'Dancing With the Stars'; that's safe," Plestis said.

"This is one of the most dangerous shows anyone can ever compete in. They are covered in black and blue marks, every one of them."

Then there's "Baby Borrowers," which was pushed from an in-season run and might draw comparisons to CBS' "Kid Nation."

"It was one of the highest-testing reality shows we have had in NBC history," Plestis said.

Even the "Gladiators" might have a tougher hill to climb in the summer, with ABC rolling out its own physical competition reality series "Wipe Out."

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Koops said. "But the scale and scope of 'Gladiators' will not be surpassed in the near future."