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NBC: An 'Infront' Offers Sell-Through Opportunities

NBC gets an A for effort this year. The fourth-place network unveiled its 2008-2009 schedule to advertisers in early April, dubbing the event an "infront" and stressing "connection"—with viewers and advertisers.

Back then, advertisers welcomed NBC's early sales pitch, and were specifically heartened by a renewed commitment to an 8 p.m. family hour and the network's inherently collaborative approach.

Last week, the network brought out the bells and whistles, mounting an interactive "experience" that comprised 40,000 square feet of real estate at NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters. A high-tech trade show with various interactive stations featured nearly life-size LCD screen facsimiles of talent—Saturday Night Live's Amy Poehler and Fred Armisen as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively—and a good representation of flesh-and-blood talent as well. The guys from Sunday Night Football, Jerome Bettis, Joe Thiesmann, Al Michaels and John Madden, were autographing balls. And Chris Matthews was making a valiant attempt to do his MSNBC program Hardball in the middle of milling throngs swilling drinks and gobbling hot appetizers.

The "experience" was designed to demonstrate the myriad NBC Universal multi-platform advertising opportunities. The takeaway, said Frank Radice, executive VP of advertising and promotion for The NBC Agency, NBC Universal's in-house ad shingle, is, "We'll sell you anything, anywhere."

"I think they're trying to hip it up," offered Hoda Kotb, who was there with Kathie Lee Gifford, her new couch-mate on the fourth hour of Today.

The expo was designed as the 3D embodiment of NBC's commitment to multi-platform sell-through pitched in April. Ben Silverman, co-chief of NBC Entertainment, has stressed the importance of "dialogue" with advertisers in a new selling model that lets sponsors have a stake in programming. For example, insurance provider Liberty Mutual will link its "personal responsibility" campaign to the NBC movie Kings, a retelling of the David and Goliath myth starring Ian McShane. Kings premieres on the network this winter as a two-hour movie with the potential to join the schedule as a regular drama.

This fall, the network will debut four new shows. My Own Worst Enemy, starring Christian Slater as TV's answer to Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne, will air after Heroes Mondays at 10 p.m. Kath & Kim, an adaptation of an Australian mother/daughter comedy starring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair, will air Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. after the latest iteration of weight-loss hit The Biggest Loser. Knight Rider, which technically premiered in February as a two-hour movie and features a starring role for the Ford GT500KR as KITT the talking car (voice provided by Will Arnett), joins the schedule on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. And Crusoe, based on the classic literary character Robinson Crusoe, will lead off Friday nights.

Midseason will bring the drama The Philanthropist, about a globetrotting, do-good billionaire; and an as-yet-untitled spinoff of The Office. The Greg Daniels comedy has a loyal following of affluent and DVR-savvy viewers, but it has never been a top 10 show. (It ranks No. 40 in live viewing, according to Nielsen.)

Reflecting the new reality of the on-demand viewer model, which has made reruns a failing programming strategy, Silverman promised repeat-free 10 p.m. hours on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday during the regular season.

All of which sounds great. But there are several inconvenient realities: The network hasn't had a breakout hit since Heroes debuted three seasons ago; returning series Chuck, Life and Lipstick Jungle have been marginal performers; and the Law & Order franchise is aging. Another Heroes-size hit would certainly add some substance to NBC's sales pitch.

Boldest Move: The network still says it is dumping cash cow Jay Leno next year.

Best Bet: That the costly "NBC Experience" will be very different—or gone—next year.

Biggest Risk: Can Heroes, NBC's biggest hit in years, regain its momentum after a long layoff?