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Broadcast Nets Profess Optimism With a Straight Face

While last year's anthem was that broadcast is broken, this year network executives are convinced they can put it back together. The drumbeats that broadcast networks were going the way of the Betamax were never louder than in the first half of 2009. While network executives maintained a happy face publicly, primetime was roughed up by the lingering effects of the WGA strike, and a confusing and disappointing upfront ad selling season only amplified its death knell.

But the scatter ad market turned in better results later in the year, and the fall TV season delivered promising new entries such as Fox's Glee and The Cleveland Show, ABC's Modern Family and Cougar Town, and CBS' NCIS: Los Angeles and The Good Wife. This good news was cause for relief, and even some optimism, among network execs. “The often-filed story of woes of TV and the death of network TV are going to be premature,” says Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly.

In addition to the new shows that are poised for further growth in the coming year, a batch of more established shows, such as CBS' NCIS and Big Bang Theory, also are on the uptick. “2010 will be the year of established hits that continue to grow,” says one network executive.

“We'll be looking for that sophomore bump,” says Jeff Bader, executive VP of program planning and scheduling at ABC, of his expectations for the network's Wednesday comedies The Middle, Modern Family and Cougar Town. “This is the season for sampling, critical acclaim, to get people talking.”

But this optimism does come with the adoption of a more modest metric. Executives interviewed for this article admitted that in 2010, a heretofore lowly 3 rating in the 18-49 demo should be considered a general benchmark for success, with a 4 signifying a hit and a 5 a smash hit.

In addition to seeing growth in 2010 for several new and returning shows, Reilly says some of the bigger questions about the economics of primetime also are due to get answered this year. “I'm optimistic for the first time in a while that we've been playing in this very tough transitional time of old walls going down and new ones not coming up,” he says. Reilly points to efforts across the industry to roll up the measurement of all screens to capture the true value of primetime programming and figure out how to window programs strategically.

Reilly is also eyeing the influx of cash that Fox and other broadcasters are after from cable operators as part of the ongoing, amped-up retransmission consent negotiations. He sees potential retrans cash aiding broadcast in particular by helping broadcast networks be more competitive with cable in bidding on big sports franchises: “That future is being written.”

Jay Leno show: TBD in 2010

Of course, another huge primetime question will be answered in 2010: What may come of The Jay Leno Show? NBC's decision last year to strip a Jay Leno vehicle at 10 p.m. was one of the most dramatic moves in primetime history. This year, the results of the grand experiment will be determined.

NBC executives have said they'd give the Leno experiment a full year before evaluating it. The show will be a year old in mid-September, and NBC chiefs maintain that it has performed about as expected. However, the halo effect on affiliates' late news and NBC's own late night, as well as the creative product, by all accounts could be much better. So when the Comcast deal to control NBC Universal gets Washington approval, NBC's new bosses may have to make a change.

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