Aiming the missiles of September

When newly-crowned NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa and Entertainment President Garth Ancier took the stage at New York's Lincoln Center last year to unveil the network's 1999-2000 schedule, the two young executives were preaching stability.

They announced a schedule that kept six of NBC's seven nights nearly unchanged, with returning anchor series slated for 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on each night. The network, which had easily won the last four seasons in the key adults 18-49 demographic, appeared set for another banner season. A handful of new dramas, West Wing, Third Watch and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit would join veteran series Friends, Frasier, ER and Law & Order in the NBC lineup.

"Viewers want stability, and they will find that at NBC," Sassa told a packed room of advertising executives.

They wanted stability. What they got was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?-the game show that propelled ABC to the top and upset the best-laid plans of all its network rivals.

Millionaire trampled all comers, including nearly everything NBC put in its way. ABC, which got off to a fast start in the May sweeps with a celebrity version of Millionaire, is now only two weeks away from officially winning the season in total viewers and adults 18-49. It will be the first time since the 1994-1995 season that NBC has not won at least one of the two key ratings categories.

"Losing to ABC is not fun," says Sassa. "That was not in anyway what I thought would happen this year."

To make sure it doesn't happen again, Sassa and Ancier will unveil for the advertising community in New York today a revamped prime time lineup for the fall that is aimed at fortifying the network's reputation for quality drama and at attracting younger viewers with more laughs and less news.

"Our predecessors did a very good job of creating a brand that was valuable to advertisers," says Ancier. "What we have tried to do in our first full year is try to perpetuate that brand while also perhaps bringing down the average age a little bit. With the newsmagazines and just in general, the network was aging up a little bit. We'd love to come down a year or two in median age over the next year if we can." (The median age rose last season from 43 to 45.)

To that end, NBC is cutting back newsmagazine Dateline NBC from five to three nights a week and introducing four new comedies and three new dramas. Last season, the network added five dramas, but only two comedies.

Three of this season's new sitcoms will be part of a Tuesday-night makeover. Former Seinfeld star Michael Richards (Kramer) has been asked to open up the night with his new comedy about a novice detective. He'll be followed by newcomer Tucker, the veteran Frasier, and another new comedy, DAG. Frasier has switched places with Will & Grace, which takes over Frasier's old spot on Thursday.

The other new sitcom, Cursed, is set to air on Thursday at 8:30 p.m., after Friends and before Will & Grace. NBC renewed the NBC-produced Will & Grace for two years, guaranteeing enough episodes for the syndication market. Thursday will once again be capped by the drama ER.

At deadline Friday, there was still some uncertainty about Friends. The cast has been holding out for big raises. Although NBC executives expected to cut a deal and return the show to its slot, it had not yet done so.

NBC is scattering its three new dramas. Dick Wolf's Deadline will debut on Monday at 9 p.m.; Titans, on Wednesday at 8 p.m.; and Ed, on Sunday at 8 p.m.

The schedule has Daddio and 3rd Rock From The Sun leading off Monday, but that could change if FOX moves its new hit series Malcolm in the Middle to Monday.

The network is scrapping its entire Saturday night lineup of action series and instead going back to big-name movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Jurassic Park.

Other returning dramas include Law & Order, Law and Order: Special Victimes Unit, West Wing, Third Watch and Providence. The Law & Order spin-off was given a two-year extension as part of a bigger deal that keeps the mother series on the air through 2004.

On the casualty list: Veronica's Closet, Suddenly Susan, Jesse, Stark Raving Mad, Profiler and The Pretender.

The network ordered three more sitcoms for midseason and a pair of dramas that could also join NBC's lineup later in the year. Steven Spielberg's military drama Semper Fi came in late and had to be pushed back to a midseason pickup. NBC wants to launch a Paramount comedy with Broadway star Kristen Chenoweth after the holidays.

The new schedule represents Sassa's and Ancier's radical new approach to series development-more pilots for less money-and a commitment to owning interest in as much programming as possible and finding new outlets for it. Those outlets include not only syndication, but also Pax TV and the Internet.

Of the seven new series joining NBC's lineup, the network has an ownership stake in five. It also has a financial stake in three of the five series awaiting midseason launches.

Less is more

Over the winter, Ancier upset TV producers with its new development plan. Rather than paying $2.5 million or so for each pilot, NBC said it would pay just $1.35 million for abbreviated "presentations." By cutting the payments, NBC nearly doubled the pool of dramas and sitcoms from which it would draw its new shows. This season, the development menu comprised 11 dramas and 16 sitcoms.

"Clearly, you don't get to see the entire cast in there, and the sets aren't as elaborate, but there is no doubt that you can get a real sense that there is a show here, or if there isn't one," says Ancier. "And a lot of the studios went long with their projects anyway, and we got to see many presentations that looked just like regular pilots."

Because NBC gave out the same ration for every presentation, including those from Steven Spielberg, Dick Wolf and the other top names, objections to NBC's low-cost pilot program dissipated quickly.

Ancier says he was teased by rival network executives and studio heads over the last several months for having too many "good projects" in development, and that he was not going to have enough room in the network's fall schedule for all of them. "We'll have to sell the extras on eBay," he jokes. "Buy a really good drama from a really good producer."

Asked if there was an added pressure developing his first lineup for NBC, Ancier says, "Of course there is, but it's not pressure imposed from the outside, rather it's from within. You have the responsibility to reload this engine that NBC has by-and-large been for the last 20 years-the leader of quality series television."

Do-it-yourself TV

Rumors, rumors and more rumors. At NBC, executives hear talk all the time about General Electric selling the network or adding a studio partner. In today's world of mega-media alignments-Viacom-CBS, Disney-ABC, Time Warner-AOL and Fox-NBC is the only major broadcast network that has not been able to call on a major Hollywood studio of its own to produce content.

There has been talk of NBC and Barry Diller's Studios USA teaming up, NBC shacking up with Sony's Columbia TriStar and GE selling NBC to Time Warner.

"Everyone hears the same rumors," says Ted Harbert, the new head of NBC Studios. "A few months ago, I probably would have bet something was going to happen. Now, after hearing [NBC President] Bob Wright speak so eloquently to it, I just don't think GE feels any pressure to add another [studio partner]. I think it's now up to our own studio."

Indeed, Wright dismisses any notion of the network being sold and says there are no immediate plans to acquire another studio or construct some sort of partnership with one. "The answer is we do have studio partnerships. We have them with Warner Bros., Paramount, Fox, Carsey-Werner, Sony," he says. "I think more and more of the shows that are on the air are co-productions of one sort or another for both parties'interest. I think, the fact is that studio partnerships plus independent partnerships are what we do. We have a lot of NBC Studios product here, and that's probably the road that we feel comfortable with and that we will pursue."

Indeed. NBC Studios-whose recent credits include Will & Grace and Providence-produced or co-produced the biggest batch of pilots ever for NBC this spring-nine dramas and six comedy pilots.

"The studio was never really run like a real business before in terms of just having a senior person who really motivated a team of people to run it," says Ancier. "I think NBC Studios is now competitive with all of the other studios in town in terms of its ability to execute and make the shows that we need to have made for the network."

NBC Studios is also developing shows for rival networks. For Fox, it is developing a comedy with producer Nancy Pimental and former NBC entertainment boss Warren Littlefield. And UPN has ordered a midseason sitcom from Married.With Children producer Ron Leavitt.

"I am now amused when people say NBC is the one network without a studio," says Harbert. "Well, if you count it up, we may not have the same amount of real estate as other people, but we certainly have a lot of shows. It's about 27 hours a week. There is a ton going on here, and the goal is to put on enough shows to get one returning comedy and one returning drama every year."

But is the goal to get more out of NBC Studios simply to get more ownership stakes in shows? "We don't have a quota," says Sassa. "We don't have stated goals on that front. We want to have the best schedule. That's first and most important. And, yes, we want to own more product. We feel owning product is more of a necessity, based upon the perceived vertical integration that other companies have or stated that they will undertake. So this is more defensive than offensive."

Be sure to recycle

NBC has been the leader among the Big Four broadcast networks in looking for outlets for the programming it owns. To the dismay of its broadcast affiliates, NBC has begun funneling some of its programming to PaxTV. NBC owns a 32% share of the upstart network and has contractual oversight of its programming. It also has an option to acquire control in 2002.

NBC began running its game show Twenty One on Saturday nights on Pax earlier this year and decided to put close to 30 hours of Olympic trials coverage on the other network leading up to this summer's Sydney Olympics.

Paxson Communications President Jeff Sagansky has said that his network is currently developing various other projects and programming initiatives with NBC, including an original magazine show. But it was last month's announcement that NBC was going to put the NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw on PaxTV stations that had NBC affiliates ready to go to war. "They seemed committed to some kamikaze mission," said Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations and chairman of the NBC Affiliates board of governors. "We don't understand it."

Less than a week later, NBC executives retreated and opted to postpone their plan until further negotiations with affiliates could take place. But don't expect the idea to go away altogether, because NBC executives seem committed to making over PaxTV with NBC-branded programming. NBC brass hope to make affiliates partners in PaxTV by persuading those located in the same market with Pax stations to help produce and sell time on them through so-called joint sales agreements.

"We believe that more exposure is a good thing. And I think our relationship with Pax was always intended to try and offer our affiliates an opportunity to have a second association in their own community where Pax is around," says NBC's Wright. "Our affiliates have first option and first right of negotiation with Pax, and that's what we have tried to strive for with Pax. It's been a slow process, and people are skeptical. There are a lot of negotiations going on, but I know we'll get there."

This season, NBC also became the first broadcast network to share an original series with a competing cable network. Law & Order: SVU debuted last fall on both NBC and USA Network-setting off fireworks with NBC affiliates who were just getting used to seeing promos for CNBC and MSNBC on NBC.

The new NBC thing

Ask Sassa and NBC President Bob Wright what the long-term goals are at NBC and both will come back at you with one answer: the Internet. NBC has gone Internet crazy. Meetings, meetings and more meetings are taking place everyday with producers, publicists, finance people and studio executives in regards to NBC's Internet plans.

"Wall Street is going to judge people by those who get the Internet and those who don't," says Sassa. "Everyone is going to be an Internet company, an e-company, or they are going to be out of business. We are jumping on the bandwagon in a big way, quickly, and getting people up to speed."

"We have an effort across all of NBC, and the challenge is for every single part of NBC-whether you are in engineering or sports scheduling or entertainment production-to use Web tools," says Wright. "And show me why you can't better your productivity and lower your costs and increase your revenues by using Web-related tools," he continues.

NBC last month unveiled NBCx. The comedy-driven Web site is going to feature original NBC-produced programming and out-takes from Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien skits. NBCx may also incorporate video from NBC-produced comedies like Will & Grace. NBC already owns stakes in NBCi, CNET, Talk City, iVillage and a handful of other sites.

"We need to use this network to turn this into multiple businesses," says Sassa. "We want to be able to go out there and take these viewers and convert them into consumers and customers. We capture viewers, in time, with our shows. But now we need to get them into more sticky environments and use them in other ways. And it's not only about money. It's also about creating a stronger affinity toward the products that we have-loyalty, care, all of those things. That's what it's about and that's where we are going."

Despite the Millionaire onslaught, NBC is in fairly good shape. It's number two in the key18-49 demo and in total households and number one in two other categories NBC executives are talking more and more about: 18-49 with household income over $75,000, and 18-49 with Internet access. Season to date, NBC is averaging a 5.7 national rating in adults 18-49 with the hefty incomes and a 5.9 rating in adults 18-49 that are linked to the Web. ABC is second in both categories with 5.3 and 5.7 ratings in the two respective demographics, according to Nielsen.

NBC executives want to keep those numbers going, but also want to hold up the network's image and brand-something they say is going to be vital in the crowded 500-channel universe-and restore their lead in every Nielsen category.

Today, in New York, advertisers and their agencies will hear a lot from Sassa and Ancier about their aggressive programming strategy. They will hear about the new shows with which they hope to implement it. And they will hear about how NBC is the best way to reach the best people.

But they will hear no more about stability.