Last-Place NBC Overhauls Show Line-Up, Business

NBC on Wednesday presents a tentative schedule of new programming to advertisers. The presentation comes a month earlier than usual, but the network is in trouble and says it's overhauling the way it does business.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

NBC is getting a jump on the other networks. In New York today, it's presenting its new lineup of shows a full month earlier than usual.

It might be hoping this early start will get it out of last place. Its storyline is that NBC is completely overhauling how it does business. Here's NPR's Kim Masters.

KIM MASTERS: For many years, the big networks have worked on a predictable clock, unveiling their upcoming schedules in May, kicking off their new seasons in September.

(Soundbite of song, "Tradition")

Unidentified Group (Singers): (Singing) Tradition, tradition. Tradition.

MASTERS: But the fall premiers are an artifact that no longer serve networks at a time when audiences have an exploding universe of entertainment options. As it is, the networks have seen audiences fragment, migrating to cable and the Internet.

The problem is that many of the shows that still bring in viewers, scripted programs like "Heroes" in NBC's case, are expensive, and they vanish from the air for months at a time. These days, audiences turn up their noses at repeats.

Mr. STEPHEN BATTAGLIA (Writer, TV Guide): That undercuts what has been the economic fundamentals of the business for decades.

MASTERS: Stephen Battaglia writes for TV Guide. In this changing landscape, he says, NBC has been the biggest loser, so the network is saying no more business as usual.

Mr. BATTAGLIA: They say they're going to have first-run programming and introduce new shows throughout the year, breaking the mold of the traditional September-to-May fall season.

MASTERS: NBC plans to present some tentative version of a year-round schedule today. The idea is to convince advertisers to buy in early on all that original NBC programming. Rival networks are dismissive, and Battaglia says it's true that other networks have dabbled with similar plans. To some degree, he says, NBC is hyping its approach.

Mr. BATTAGLIA: Part of it is smoke and mirrors. Part of is, well, you know, we don't have any new hit shows to point to, so let's talk about the new paradigm.

MASTERS: Still, NBC has been able to grab some attention. Brad Adgate analyzes programming for advertisers.

Mr. BRAD ADGATE (Television Program Analyst): Advertisers are in the market 52 weeks a year. They're not in for 36 weeks a year. So to get a better idea of what their programming is going to be over the course of a year is, I think, going to beneficial for marketers.

MASTERS: Of course, NBC will need to come up with a lot of programming on the cheap, and that means more reality. TV Guide's Stephen Battaglia says that may not be so attractive to advertisers.

Mr. BATTAGLIA: Except for the very top shows like "American Idol," they tend to pay less for reality shows than they will for top-rated scripted programming.

MASTERS: So NBC can't afford to give up on scripted shows, but it will try to save money. It will try to avoid making a lot of expensive pilots, many of which never get aired. In some cases, the network has commissioned series based only on concepts and the talents attached to them. And this month, the network will air episodes of "Monk" and "Psych," shows that have already run on the USA Network.

Cable repeats and reality shows may not seem likely to bolster NBC, but at this point, Battaglia says, the network needs to experiment. After all…

Mr. BATTAGLIA: What do they really have to lose?

MASTERS: Maybe NBC isn't really going to reinvent the business, Battaglia says, but if it engages advertisers long enough to come up with a new hit show, its pronouncements will have served their purpose. Kim Masters, NPR News.

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