NBC’s 52-week sked a template for the future?

Canadian media strategists weigh in on the pros and cons of unveiling a year's programming in one fell swoop.

When NBC announced last week what it’s ballyhooing as a revolutionary step into the future, MiC decided to find out how Canadian media strategists view the concept of a US net unveiling its entire year’s prime-time programming at once, rather than during traditional upfronts.

‘A business-as-usual approach no longer applies in today’s multi-platform media environment,’ argued Jeff Zucker, president/CEO of NBC Universal. And the obvious advantage for advertisers and their media planners, he contends, is that viewing 52 weeks of options early in the year will bolster their strategic planning.

That’s why NBC is inviting American media and ad agency execs to a three-day event in New York in early April, a month before the other major networks stage upfronts for their fall shows. On offer at the give-and-take sessions will be a first look at what the peacock network – plus Universal Studios and affiliate nets including USA, Sci Fi Channel, Bravo, MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo – have lined up for 2008-09. That process will be followed by a sort of upfront lite, which NBC is calling a ‘spotlight event,’ on May 12.

The new strategy, says Michael Pilot, president of NBC Universal sales and marketing, ‘marks the next step in the evolution. . . to create a more powerful communication between our clients and consumers through innovative, targeted and custom marketing solutions.’

So how do NBC’s plans strike Canadian media strategists? Here’s a round-up of opinions.

Is NBC’s approach actually new?

Lauren Richards, Starcom MediaVest Group: ‘This is really an extension of the approach the American networks already have in place – that they meet with the key American buyers in April and provide them with whatever programming and strategy decisions they can before the up-fronts happen.’

Sunni Boot, president/CEO, and Florence Ng, media buyer, at ZenithOptimedia: ‘NBC is not the first to come up with this idea. Fox has close to ‘year round’ schedules developed around their baseball commitments in September/October. We recall getting three sets of schedules during the Fox upfront to cover three key periods of the year.’

Would an early look at an entire year’s programming be advantageous for advertisers and media strategists?

Richards: ‘Given that we are all searching for further and greater interesting content opportunities, having full disclosure will only benefit advertisers.’

Boot & Ng: ‘This will provide buyers a better position to take advantage of relevant programming to showcase specific brand/client initiatives.’

What’s the likely effect on pricing of the early 52-week programming reveal?

Bruce Claassen, CEO, Genesis Media: ‘Not sure how pricing would be handled, particularly in the back half of the year. In any event, any advertiser who would actually book against the 52-week sked would no doubt be fully audience guaranteed. But this is tricky, as there is no point getting bonused in Q1 if Q4 fell out of bed. My guess is this is a bit like an ’09 auto being launched in mid ’08 – an attempt to pre-empt the competition.’

Will NBC’s strategy likely result in more ad revenue for the network or less?

Claassen: ‘Hard to say. My guess is they’re trying to pre-empt the upfront, and showing full 52-week sked is the ‘give’ they are offering for the early ‘ask.’ Also, it depends a lot on what’s on the sked. If we assume it’s exciting, the gamble might pay off, and their revenue share vs. just doing it the traditional way might be greater. On the other hand, I’m not sure what the disincentive is for advertisers to say ‘that’s nice, but we want to have a look at what the other guys have before we commit.’ If none, then it’s almost like showing your hand before all the bets have been put on the table.’

Is this a potential template for how things will work in the future?

Kim Osbourne Duarte, group director broadcast, PHD Canada: ‘Based on our client base, we doubt a full-year schedule is going to make a difference in how we plan. Most of our clients’ plans are based on calendar, not on broadcast months, so this approach would have little impact. Over the last few years, many clients are approving budgets later and later each buying period, which is resulting in many last-minute buys. If this trend continues, a full-year schedule is not going to change the way the clients think.’

Caroline Gianias, SVP/GM, Carat Canada: ‘If networks provide information that’s useful in developing a specific strategy, then this is a good thing. The biggest frustration with television upfronts/buying is that often the programs being committed to are either on air for a short duration, put on hiatus, or interrupted with ‘new programming.’ If the networks could provide agencies with schedules and pricing that will actually reflect the television landscape at the time a client is active in TV, then this would be an effective way of managing campaigns. NBC wants to showcase their integrated media marketing possibilities. In order to do so, they need a longer window than is typical in the two-week upfront frenzy.’

Will Canadian networks feel forced to follow NBC’s example and, if so, would that be good or problematic for marketers and media strategists?

Richards: ‘They will do what’s right for their business and our market. But I would say that I think the networks/stations on both sides of the border are making concerted efforts to partner with media agencies in bigger and deeper ways, and I can only see this season as a continued evolution of this mentality.’

Duarte: ‘Canadian networks can only follow suit if all networks jump on board. With CTV and Canwest relying on several US networks for their programming, NBC alone is not going to force the Canadian networks to release full-year schedules. With several of our clients buying 52-week schedules, it would be nice to know that what we buy is what’s actually going to air. As it stands, we have to revise our schedules each period based on the programming available. Knowing what the full year-schedule actually looks like, would be very advantageous for some of our clients.’

Gianias: ‘Knowing a US network’s line-up earlier, and knowing it will change less, would be helpful to manage their inventory and programming opportunities, as well as being ahead of any integrated opportunities that may be available.’

Might going the 52-week route, as opposed to participating in traditional upfronts for fall shows, actually make NBC’s offerings less competitive because the network wouldn’t be part of the buying frenzy?

Claassen: ‘Perhaps, but it depends on when ad budgets are released. We all know what the current upfront system is, so we plan, assess and release budgets to those historical dates. I’m not sure if NBC will gain revenue, but I don’t think by design this strategy runs the risk of the network losing. After all, if they don’t sell in April/May, I can’t imagine they would refuse business in June/July.’