Losing in Fall Ratings, NBC Says the Race Is Long

Network ekes out niche victories in summer, mid-season, and maybe even Friday

NBC is having a rough fall.

The network is down 11 percent in the ratings, while its rival networks gain or hold steady. It is the only network already to have canceled two shows this season. And, according to Comcast earnings released Wednesday, its third-quarter ad revenue is flat.

Which would make this feel like panic time — if NBC's strategy mostly depended on fall. But the network insists that it does not.

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More than any other network, NBC has tried to program year-round, like cable networks do, rather than emphasize fall. It may seem like a case of changing the rules when you're losing the game, but the strategy is helping the fourth-place network eke out niche victories at times when other networks expend far less effort.

"Remember this is a company that not that long ago was willing to stick Jay Leno in a roadblock at 10 o'clock five nights a week," said Craig Moffett, a senior analyst for Bernstein Research. "That was as close as a sign of capitulation as you're gonna get. Comcast is still trying to undo the damage that was done during a long period of under-investment."

NBC executives declined to comment for this story.

Also read: Fall TV Forecast: How NBC Can Break Into 3rd Without Breakout Hits

Though NBC represents only about 6 percent of Comcast's revenue, it is one of its most prominent assets, Moffett said. That means Comcast has "staked its reputaton on being able to fix what's broken at NBC."

Comcast, which acquired the network in January, announced in May that it would dedicate $200 million to programming costs to help turn the network around. It brought in respected creative executive Robert Greenblatt to head NBC Entertainment when it took control of the company.

This development season, the network has outbid other networks for high-profile projects including a comedy from "Glee" co-creator Ryan Murphy and writer Allison Adler, and the weight-loss sitcom "Big Men," from "Bridesmaids" star Chris O'Dowd.

NBC has also had consistent success with "Sunday Night Football," and will air this season's Super Bowl, which has grown to record viewership in each of its past two years.

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The network also points to its relatively youthful viewership — the median age is 48.9, lower than that of ABC or CBS's audience. And it boasts that its audience has surpassed ABC's as the most upscale, with a higher index of 18-to-49-year-olds who live in homes with earnings of $100,000 or more.

It has wisely refused to set a timeline for surpassing third-place ABC, which has remained flat in the fall ratings as NBC slipped.

This fall, NBC's early casualties have included the drama "The Playboy Club" (above) and the comedy "Free Agents." No other network has canceled two shows this season; only Fox, which is surging in viewership and ratings, has not canceled any.

Greenblatt inherited almost all of the current season's slate when he took over earlier this year with Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal. Though he didn't get to develop his shows from their beginnings, he does get to decide where to put them.

His biggest success has been "The Voice," which debuted in April and became the biggest new show of last season. This season, it will debut after the Super Bowl in February, and then provide a lead-in for "Smash." Greenblatt has high hopes for the musical drama, which he began developing at Showtime before he moved over to NBC.

"The Voice" was NBC's first niche win during Greenblatt's term, but not its last: the network was the top-ranked of the summer, thanks in large part to the strength of "America's Got Talent."

NBC also had a promising night this past Friday. Its fairy-tale inspired cop show, "Grimm," debuted to a solid 2.1 last week in the 18-to-49 demographic. That's far from a great number, but it's a good one for the Friday-night ratings dead zone.

NBC's greatest challenge is to build on its niche successes. If "The Voice" and "Smash" can succeed back-to-back on Monday nights, it would create a new musical-themed block for a network eager for built-in successes during the week.

But NBC hasn't had the best luck turning niche successes into primetime smashes so far. "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams is one of the networks' greatest assets — a utility player who not only leads the highest-rated nightly newscast, but knows how to turn on the comedy for "Saturday Night Live" appearances.

His new primetime show, "Rock Center with Brian Williams," debuted to an anemic 1.0 rating on Halloween night — earning even weaker ratings than "The Playboy Club," which it replaced in the 10 p.m. timeslot.

In defense of "Rock Center," news shows are cheaper to produce than dramas, and need lower ratings to justify themselves. Also, Halloween is a bad night for television viewing all around.

A person at NBCU-Universal said the show's "ratings were totally in line with our expectations and we're committed to the show."

Sounds like another long-term strategy.