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Fox Calls NBC Upfront Plan 'Smoke and Mirrors'

Fox executives Wednesday blasted NBC’s recent announcement outlining a revamped upfront and scheduling process.

Fox brass claimed that its network had long been executing initiatives NBC announced Tuesday, such as setting year-round schedules and communicating plans to advertisers long before the May presentations.

“It’s kind of humorous that Mr. Zucker makes an announcement that pretty much describes our strategy and approach over the last few years,” Fox programming and scheduling chief Preston Beckman said, referring to NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker. “It is total smoke and mirrors. If anyone should be getting credit, it is us. He is basically saying, 'We are going to imitate the No. 1 network.'”

Uninterested in taking the bait, NBC Entertainment co-chair Marc Graboff played down Fox’s claims.

“The story is about value and an overall process change, not who was first,” Graboff said. “Is [Beckman] disagreeing? Is he saying it’s a bad idea? He clearly is not saying it’s stupid; he’s just saying he thought of it first.”

From an advertising buyer perspective, Campbell Mithun senior vice president and director of media negotiations John Rash said advertising investment is reflective of audience interest, not a first-mover advantage in a particular strategy.

“Regardless of which network did it first, it’s which network does it best that’s most important,” he said. “And to the degree that any network can have a true 52-week season is the direction the entire industry needs to head.”

The back-and-forth comes after NBC Tuesday announced what it called a “client-centric” approach to its upfront that it said will include presenting a year-round programming schedule in April, followed by meetings with advertisers in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The network's traditional Radio City Music Hall show will be replaced with a May 12 event of some sort outlining initiatives across multiple NBCU platforms.

In a press release, NBC said the event will “showcase the full scale of the NBCU offerings in a unique, multimedia, interactive environment.”

Fox, along with ABC, CBS and The CW, plan to stage more traditional upfront presentations.

Fox’s often-colorful Beckman, a former NBC scheduler, went as far as to say he wondered if the May 12 event would be “some sort of carnival.”

“Is there a Ben Silverman kissing booth?” he said, referring to the other NBC Entertainment co-chair. “A Jeff Zucker dunking booth?”

Regarding 52-week scheduling, Beckman also pointed out that for the past couple of years, Fox had already been outlining a year-round schedule at its upfront, such as holding American Idol and 24 for January and shows like So You Think You Can Dance for the summer. 

“So for someone to suddenly talk about a 52-week season, it’s like, 'What planet have you been on the last couple years?'” he added.

Beckman also said that while NBC was “sending out a press release about visiting with clients in April,” Fox chief Peter Liguori was literally on a plane Tuesday to New York to meet with advertisers and outline strategy for next season.

“That is the ultimate joke in all this: NBC going out on these missions from God when Peter is on the plane,” Beckman said. “And I guarantee you Peter gave them more of a vision and strategy that will actually happen than NBC will give in April.”

Speaking via telephone from New York between meetings with ad buyers, Liguori was decidedly more understated, but he did see a reason for NBC’s announcement.

“One network has been No. 1 the last few years, and one network was No. 1 and is now No. 4," Liguori said, referring to NBC's reversal of fortune after years of begin on top. "That may be part of it."

He also saw a challenge ahead for NBC in the wake of Tuesday’s announcement and Zucker’s speech at National Association of Television Program Executives' show foreshadowing fewer pilots and a scaled-down upfront presentation in New York in May.

“Jeff’s got a tall order. He has promised advertisers NBC 2.0. He promised complete change in the upfronts, then no upfront and no pilots,” Liguori said. “It’s not our network’s style to make huge proclamations.”

Graboff fired back that looking at any one piece of his company’s new approach didn’t capture the overarching strategy.

“In their zeal to proclaim themselves industry trendsetters, our competition has completely missed the point here,” he said. “Frankly, the feedback we’ve gotten from buyers and clients tells us that this approach is exactly what they are looking for.”

And Rash pointed out that, despite all of the back-and-forth about process and timing, it still comes back to who is making the best television shows. “What’s most important is to see the schedule behind the strategy,” he said.

Both networks did add some detail to what they will -- or won't -- be laying out for advertisers.

Fox’s fall upfront presentation will not necessarily lay out exactly what shows will go into particular time slots after the fourth quarter. For instance, while 24 may return Mondays at 9 p.m. in January, the network at its upfront may talk through two or three candidates to lead into the veteran drama at 8 p.m.

NBC’s meetings with advertisers also may not have locked in dates for everything. Graboff said. For example, it may present strategies such as running a show like Heroes without repeats for a spell in the fall, then bringing it back at a certain time later in the year.

“We don’t know that this schedule will say, 'On this particular Monday in January 2009 will be the return of Knight Rider,'” Graboff said.

For complete coverage of the upfronts, click here.