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NBC's bid to 'Heist' ratings gold (Dinosaur Media Extinction Alert) ^ | Feb 3, 2006 | David B. Wilkerson

Posted on 02/03/2006 6:56:57 PM PST by abb

Can Olympic broadcasts help network recapture its glory? By David B. Wilkerson, MarketWatch Last Update: 6:41 PM ET Feb. 3, 2006

CHICAGO (MarketWatch) -- If you don't see any connection between Olympic skiing and a group of professional thieves who are trying to rip off Beverly Hills jewelry stores, don't worry -- there isn't one.

But NBC is betting, pretty heavily, that while you're watching telecasts of the Winter Olympic Games that begin next week in Turin, Italy, you'll see so many promotional spots for its midseason drama "Heist" that you'll want to see the show when it debuts March 22.

"Heist" is one of several new shows that NBC, the former ratings champion, hopes will turn around its second straight dismal season. After bringing up the rear among the biggest U.S. networks last year, NBC once again finds itself in dead last.

Having paid a total of $2.3 billion to air the 2004 Summer Olympics, this year's Games and the 2008 Summer Olympics, NBC wants to use the spike in ratings it receives from those events as a springboard to regain viewers for its regular schedule after all the medals have been awarded in Turin.

Historically, the one advantage to being a last-place network is that it can take more risks with shows that defy convention. If such shows don't work -- as NBC discovered with "Book of Daniel," its just-canceled drama about a priest with major family issues -- little has been lost. If they do work out, like the network's new comedy hit "My Name is Earl," the payoff can be sizeable.

ABC, which turned itself around dramatically last season, is the most recent example of a network pulling itself out of the ratings cellar on the strength of just two or three hit shows, such as "Desperate Housewives," "Lost" and "Grey's Anatomy."


NBC has several new shows slated to come out after the Olympics, including two crime dramas and a sitcom. It's also bringing back a game show and reshuffling its lineup of current programs.

The peacock network is too proud to give up on this season already.

At the Television Critics Association's press tour in January, NBC Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly declared that the network expects to be "very competitive" this spring, using the Olympics to give its new shows "the launch they deserve."

The stakes are high for a network whose two-decade reign as the ratings leader crumbled in the 2003-04 season.

"They're having ratings trouble, they're about to have their biggest promotional platform for the next two years, and this is exactly what they should be doing," said media historian Harry Castleman, co-author of the authoritative history "Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television."

"They're saying, we're going to promote like hell before the new season, and we're going to start our brand new season after the Olympics," Castleman said.

It's a huge opportunity with little to lose, but the proof will be in the execution the network makes with new shows and schedules.

"The only thing the Olympics can do pretty consistently is raise awareness of a new project, and you can usually elicit sampling," said Bill Carroll, director of programming at Katz Television Group, a New York-based media-buying firm. "Once you've done that, it really comes down to whether the shows deliver at that point."

From the 1984-85 season -- led by "The Cosby Show," "Family Ties," "Cheers" and "Night Court" -- NBC maintained a bullet-proof two-hour comedy block, enabling it able to use its domination of Thursday night to control the network television landscape.

But with the loss of "Friends" after the 2003-04 season, NBC saw the last of its benchmark Thursday night sitcoms fade away. Among other issues, the spinoff "Joey" failed to catch on; a new version of "The Apprentice with Martha Stewart" bombed, and the network lost viewers to ratings leader CBS' police dramas and ABC's raft of new hits.

Profits plunge

Amid a precipitous profit decline, NBC is under increasing financial pressure to mount a comeback.

In the fourth quarter, parent company General Electric said net income at the network, its owned-and-operated TV stations and TV production studio dropped 60% the previous year. The company estimates that NBC's profit will tumble as much as an additional 25% in 2006.

The network has wasted no time in tinkering with the schedule at midseason.

Earlier this month, NBC showed huge confidence in two newer sitcoms, "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office," moving them from Tuesdays to Thursdays, its traditional powerhouse night. The shows air from 9 to 10 p.m. Eastern time, leading into the long-running medical drama "ER," which still gets formidable ratings.

"Earl," in its first season, stars Jason Lee as a loser who wins a lottery and decides to make amends to people he has harmed during his life. The show did well in a Tuesday time slot for the first three months of the season, ranking as the top Tuesday night show among viewers in the important category of ages 18 to 49.

According to Nielsen Media Research data, "Earl" has lifted NBC's Thursday 9 p.m. ratings by 31% since it moved to that night on Jan. 5.

"It's got a clever premise, which they've managed to make work beyond one episode," said Walter Podrazik, another television historian who is Castleman's co-author on "Watching TV." "When I first heard the premise ... I thought 'OK, let's see how this one works.' But again, with good writing, clever execution, it is working."

Castleman isn't sure about the program's long-term prospects. "It's a nice show, it's got a novel kind of slant on things ... But it's a tougher sell. It's harder to get people involved [in an unusual show]. It's certainly done better than I thought it would do, but I'm still not convinced that it's got enough to hold up as a Thursday anchor."

"The Office," now in its second season, is the U.S. version of a popular British sitcom. Steve Carell, who starred in last summer's hit movie "The 40-Year Old Virgin," stars as the inept manager of a paper mill who drives his employees up the wall.

History may not be on NBC's side. No British comedy or drama has been successfully made into an American hit since ABC turned "Man About the House" into "Three's Company" in 1977.

Other changes in the schedule will take place following the Olympics.

'Law & Order' moves

Somewhat startlingly, NBC has opted to move "Law & Order," the sturdy crime drama now in its 16th season, from Wednesday nights at 10 to the much more competitive time slot of 9 p.m. At 9, the cops and lawyers have to stare down ABC's "Lost" and another cop program, the CBS drama "Criminal Minds."

With ratings finally down for "Law & Order," Castleman and Podrazik say NBC is probably preparing the show for a graceful exit.

"They're saying, 'This has had a great run. Let's throw it here in this horrible time slot, and see what happens," Castleman said. "How can we lose?' "

Still, the show could reasonably be seen as logical counterprogramming for "Lost," the mysterious and complex saga of plane crash survivors on a remote island.

It could be argued that the seemingly endless reruns of "Law & Order" on NBC and USA Network, along with reruns of the spinoffs "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," have hurt the original "L&O," which has been on NBC since 1990.

"I guess the real question always is, are the spinoffs special enough, and do viewers seek them out," said Carroll "And certainly in these cases, viewers have sought them out. They're distinct enough from the original and from each other, but the style and the pacing are so familiar that audiences find them comfortable."

"Heist" stars Dougray Scott, Steve Harris, Seymour Cassel, Marika Dominczyk and David Walton as professional burglars who plot jewelry robberies during Oscar week. It airs at 10 p.m. Eastern after "Law & Order."

The network is canceling two of its longest-running programs, "The West Wing" and "Will & Grace." Each had been a ratings winner in its heyday, but had seen those audiences decline.

Castleman called "West Wing," the White House drama starring Martin Sheen as the president, will go down as one of the great shows of all time. "But the fact that this is a good time to kill it off, at the end of President Bartlett's second term ... let's face it, the show had clearly been going downhill in the last couple of years."

Carroll notes that the program was given a last chance to save itself when NBC moved it to Sunday night from its familiar Wednesday slot. "That was the test to see if they still had a big enough following to carry over to Sunday night. And it appears that it didn't."

"Deal or No Deal," a game show that had its debut last month and ran for five straight nights to good ratings, will be back for another week from Feb. 27 to March 3. It will return a few days later as a weekly show, leading off the Monday night slate at 8 p.m.

Less confusion

In a concept recalling the old game show "Treasure Hunt," contestants have to pick from 26 sealed briefcases that could contain anything from a penny to $1 million. The contestant can keep the briefcase, if he or she chooses, until its contents are revealed at the end of the game.

The Donald Trump reality series "The Apprentice" follows "Deal" at 9 p.m. on Mondays, moving from its Thursday time slot.

"If you looked at this past fall, there was a certain degree of confusion, with the Martha Stewart and Donald Trump versions," Carroll said. "I think now it'll be a bit clearer for the audience."

Other new shows include "Conviction," the latest drama from "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf.

The story of a group of young district attorneys in New York will be seen at 10 p.m. on Fridays following the James Caan drama "Las Vegas," which moves from Mondays. The series mark an attempt to lure more viewers to a night that has long been considered a throwaway by network executives.

If NBC can begin a ratings turnaround with the Olympics, it can put itself in a great position to benefit later in the year from the sport that reigns supreme in the U.S. -- NFL football.

Last April, NBC forged an agreement with the NFL to take over Sunday evening football telecasts from ESPN in 2006, under a $600 million deal that will run through 2011.

"Getting NFL football onto the NBC primetime lineup is a major accomplishment," said Podrazik. "If they have that as an initial lure, it's not that they're one hit away from being the No. 1 network, because they're a little too far behind.

"But if they can start getting clusters of shows that spill over and get people interested in other shows, then they build in something that gives them, over two or three years, the potential for a comeback."

David B. Wilkerson is a reporter for MarketWatch in Chicago.

TOPICS: News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: dinosaurmedia; msm; nbc; networks; oldmedia; television
Broadcast networks, as we know them today, will be extinct in 5 to 10 years....
1 posted on 02/03/2006 6:56:59 PM PST by abb
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To: abb

The 'nut' graf...

In the fourth quarter, parent company General Electric said net income at the network, its owned-and-operated TV stations and TV production studio dropped 60% the previous year. The company estimates that NBC's profit will tumble as much as an additional 25% in 2006.

2 posted on 02/03/2006 6:58:38 PM PST by abb (Because News Reporting is too important to be left to the Journalists.)
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To: abb

You'll also see tons of advertising for the Oscars - When the stars come out and tell you how rotten you are for being an American!

3 posted on 02/03/2006 7:11:37 PM PST by Tzimisce
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To: abb
I can no longer watch the Olympics when NBCCBSABC do them.

All of the touchy/feely little stories they do really turn me off and the NBC commentators must actually think they are funny and witty. Plus, whenever I see Katie Couric my fingers automatically go to the remote and switch the channel.

Plus, the amount of self serving commercials!!

I now get my results and clips on the web.

4 posted on 02/03/2006 7:22:01 PM PST by technomage (NEVER underestimate the depths to which liberals will stoop for power.)
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To: abb
NBC is betting, pretty heavily, that while you're watching telecasts of the Winter Olympic Games

Not if they follow the same planning they have in previous Olympics -- delayed events, splitting events and delaying broadcast of finals, and splattering coverage erratically over their cable channels.
5 posted on 02/03/2006 7:28:48 PM PST by TomGuy
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To: abb
NBC will bomb on the Olympics like they always do. They'll give us a 1 minute snippet of the Men's downhill and then cut away to two hours of Mens Pairs Ice Dancing practice. Then they will have a 40 minute special interest story about how Ethiopia's Luge ream trains on a mud track with cardboard boxes. Instead of showing the Luge event, you'll get 2 more hours of Ice Dancing.
6 posted on 02/03/2006 8:22:40 PM PST by skikvt (7th Infantry Division, Buffaloes)
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To: abb

Why don't they just broadcast commericals for Dateline announcing "The Shroud is fake! The Shroud is fake!!"

7 posted on 02/03/2006 8:40:07 PM PST by Tanniker Smith (I didn't know she was a liberal when I married her.)
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To: skikvt

The 2 man luge is Brokebutt Mountin on ice!!

Pray for W and Our Freedom Fighters

8 posted on 02/03/2006 8:46:37 PM PST by bray (Jack Bauer '08)
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To: abb

Tonight I felt like having a good I turned the tube on to see if anything good was on...FORGETIT! I ended up on the funniest animal channel! Boy, what I give to see shows like the I love Lucy comedy show without a sex theme! Clean, funny and family oriented! Oh well, back to the ancient practice of reading books! :(

9 posted on 02/03/2006 8:52:25 PM PST by RoseofTexas
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To: skikvt
If we even get that much sports showing time. I seem to remember the last Olympics... very little of the events but plenty of the talking heads... Way tooo much talking heads and special interest stories. Why do they assume that women like hard like stories (so called interest stories). Wish they would just show the events and keep their mouths shut.
10 posted on 02/04/2006 6:31:00 AM PST by Strutt9
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To: abb
"Broadcast networks, as we know them today, will be extinct in 5 to 10 years...."

Re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic did not stop it from sinking.

11 posted on 02/04/2006 7:00:58 AM PST by albee (Clinton"Those that bite the hand that feeds them will lick the boot that kicks them!" - Eric Hoffer)
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To: Strutt9

Hopefully we'll get to see Matt Lauer's camel toe again.

12 posted on 02/04/2006 7:31:12 AM PST by skikvt (7th Infantry Division, Buffaloes)
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To: skikvt

Oh that's funny!

13 posted on 02/05/2006 6:07:12 AM PST by Strutt9
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