NBC's going to the movies on Sun. nights


In a surprising move, NBC's new scheduling topper Vince Manze is bringing back theatrical movies — a genre that largely has been written off by the broadcast nets and relegated to graveyard Saturdays — to three high-profile Sunday nights during the May sweep.

The move is part of the strategy of veteran NBC promotion executive Manze, who said this month when he was named president of program planning, scheduling and strategy that he would focus on building event programming.

Looking to do that, he saw that the network had runs on romantic comedy "Along Came Polly," action-adventure "National Treasure" (both broadcast TV premieres) and a final run of "Shrek" and decided to put them on.

"Sunday seemed like the best place — the place where we used to do events and miniseries," Manze said. "It seemed like a great thing to do and it accomplishes two things: building events and serving as counterprogramming to what the others are doing (on the night)."

In picking the movies, Manze said he put on his marketing hat, going for titles he can easily promote. For instance, he selected "Polly" because of its cast — bankable feature comedy star Ben Stiller and such familiar faces to the NBC audience as "Friends" alum Jennifer Aniston, "Will & Grace's" Debra Messing and "Mad About You's" Hank Azaria.

Manze said the ratings expectations for the movies are not huge, but he wants to try new things with an eye for next season. Just like ABC struggled for years to jump-start its Monday lineup after "Monday Night Football" ended, NBC had difficulty getting traction on post-football Sunday night this season, and Manze hopes that using event programming instead of trying to launch series in January and February might work better.

Sunday used to be a movie night for the Big Three networks, until, during the past five years, one by one they switched to series programming after ratings for films — theatrical and original — began to plunge. With the proliferation of DVDs, VOD and multiple runs on pay and basic cable, theatrical movies as ratings weapons were abandoned first. So far this season, broadcast networks have aired feature films on Sunday only as counterprogramming to the Super Bowl and around Christmas.

During the May sweep, NBC also is trimming the "Deal or No Deal" editions down from two to one a week. Aside from the 100th episode of "Deal" on May 6, leading into a two-hour "Saturday Night Live" special, the game show won't air Sundays. Manze said he wants to save fresh episodes of the show, which has begun to soften lately, to air possibly during the summer.

Being in his new job as head of programming is "both exciting and overwhelming at the same time," Manze said. For his overall strategy for next season, he said his goal is to "bring people back to broadcast television" to make them again feel "part on an event, part of the gathering."

He is looking to air as much original programming as he can, stretching first-run episodes over the season in the best way possible.