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NBCU’s Zucker Hints At End Of Upfronts

Las Vegas -- NBC Universal is contemplating big changes in the ways it develops programming and sells it to advertisers, including the possible cancellation of traditional upfronts by the media company in favor of in-person presentations at agencies, CEO Jeff Zucker said at the NATPE conference Tuesday.

Zucker told attendees at the National Association of Television Programming Executives gathering that his company would make an announcement in the next two weeks about whether it will do a traditional upfront this season, but joked that network executives have made travel travel plans so the audience could take that as a hint.


He also said the so-called pilot season at NBC will be greatly different this year, and not just because of the strike by the Writers Guild of America. The process could be much more like the process utilized successfully by USA Network. The cabler has developed five pilots in the last two years, he noted, two of which -- Burn Notice and Psych -- have been big hits, he said. 


NBC's cable networks are successful because they rely on stories, not high-priced actors and directors, to develop a show, Zucker said. Broadcasters can no longer afford a development system like that in 2007, when $500 million was spent on script development, resulting in 80 pilots, only eight of which were picked up as shows, he said. None of those eight were great hits, he noted.


The strategy at the some of the NBCU cable networks is to buy into a concept and order that series straight to air, he said. Six episodes can be created for the estimated $10 million it costs to make a pilot, a film which frequently does not represent how the series will ultimately look on air, he said. 


Zucker said networks shouldn't make less scripted programming, but develop them with less waste. "If [producers] believe in it, and we believe in it, it should go direct to air," he said.


Zucker called the WGA strike only the most obvious symptom of the tumult in the television business.


The strike has given network executives time to think about how they can fundamentally change the programming business and while mulling the challenge of monetizing new programming platforms, he said."We don't want to trade on-air dollars for digital pennies," he stressed.


Cable networks now represent 54% of NBC Universal's income, with broadcasting generating just 5%, he said, adding however that broadcasting is an important part of the company's legacy.



Zucker also called for a comprehensive review of communications regulation by the Federal Communications Commission, which would take reflect current business and competitive realities. He criticized the FCC for making "isolated decisions based on outdating perceptions" about the television business. 


Later, he added that the rules the FCC chooses to enforce "due to the political whims of the day," are outdated.


Asked about rumors that GE, NBC Universal's parent company, might sell the programmer, Zucker pointed to the television investments the parent company has made in television in the last year, including the acquisition of the Oxygen cable network and a stake in an Indian broadcaster Zucker anticipates could be hugely profitable in the next four years. 


Spin-off rumors grow when NBC primetime is not successful, but the rumors wane as performance improves, he said.


"If we don't perform, they should sell us," he said.


Asked about possible changes in the demographic target or programming of Oxygen, Zucker merely said programming on the female-targeted network would be complementary to Bravo’s.