NBC might scale back hours, Zucker says

NBC Uni chief discusses options amid economic downturn

NEW YORK -- It's a sign of just how bad the TV biz has gotten: NBC is exploring cuts to the number of primetime hours it programs.

NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker said Monday that the entire broadcast industry is facing tremendous challenges because of the changing media landscape, sliding ratings and the economic downturn.

"Can we continue to broadcast 22 hours in primetime? Three of our competitors don't," Zucker told the annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference in Manhattan. "Can we continue to broadcast seven days a week? One of our competitors doesn't."

There has been speculation that broadcasters have been looking at the possibility of cutting back on the hours they program, this is the first time a top TV executive has publicly acknowledged that.

The big three networks program 22 hours a week over seven days, but they don't program originals on Saturday, and only CBS runs all-original scripted programming on Fridays. Fox programs 15 hours a week over seven days. The CW and MyNetworkTV do less and program only six nights a week.

The broadcast TV model has to be rethought in the face of fierce competition from cable and the Internet, Zucker said.

"If you don't, then the broadcast network will end up like the newspaper companies, or worse, like the auto companies," he said.

After the UBS event, Zucker declined to go into specifics but told The Hollywood Reporter that he didn't want to give the wrong impression.

"It's not giving up. It's not retrenching. It's not throwing in the towel," Zucker said.

Other networks said they aren't considering schedule cutbacks. A broadcast insider said that NBC's reasoning could be construed as counterproductive because "it's like the automakers shutting down plants: It saves some money short-term, but it also prevents an opportunity to make any."

John Rash, an ad buyer and media analyst at Campbell Mithun, said that if NBC or any other network decided to return primetime hours or an entire night back to the affiliates, it's likely going to be a long-term decision that would be hard to reverse. He said it's possible that the other networks could follow the lead of the first network or use it as an opportunity to build its ratings on those affected hours.

Zucker acknowledged the poor ratings performance of NBC, which saw most of its new fall series tank, but didn't lay the blame at the feet of NBC Entertainment co-chairs Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff.

"We have not had a good fall at NBC," Zucker said. He said that none of the broadcast nets has had a strong TV season, but it doesn't give him any comfort that broadcast overall isn't in good shape.

"I don't think that's lost on Ben or Marc Graboff," Zucker said in response to a question from the audience about Silverman's status. "In no way have we lost confidence" in either, he responded.

Zucker also said that the network's development model has been evolving. It would include an increased number of pilots this coming season than last season, when NBC brass advocated a direct-to-series model, which will be scaled back. Zucker stressed that NBC has increased investment in original programming.

He also said there have to be changes to the local TV model, which is particularly challenged by the economy and technology. NBC owns local stations in some of the largest markets, including Los Angeles and New York.

Additionally, he said that digital ad sales momentum has hit a sudden wall this quarter.

"We can't count on digital to be the big growth engine that we thought it would be in 2009," he said.

James Hibberd in Los Angeles and Georg Szalai contributed to this report.