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NBC to launch fall schedule early in '04

Network to roll out new programs after Athens Olympics
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

Autumn is coming early for NBC this year.

While the TV season’s mid-September start has long been a sacred rite of commercial broadcasting, NBC will forge a new path for the 2004-05 season. The network will launch virtually its entire lineup of new series in the two weeks immediately following the Aug. 29 close of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, the network said Wednesday at the semiannual Television Critics Association winter press tour in Hollywood.

Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Entertainment, News and Cable Group, told reporters the move comes as broadcasters are increasingly moving to flexible schedules that introduce new series year-round rather than waiting for official fall or midseason starts. But NBC is taking a substantial risk by breaking more than half a century of industry tradition and rolling out its new schedule nearly a month before competitors.

On the other hand, Zucker said, the anticipated ratings bounty of the Olympics made the scheduling ploy impossible to resist.

“We are not going to let the calendar dictate when the season starts,” he said. “We are going to move all those great Olympic viewers right in to our entertainment programming.”

Alluding to the risk involved, Zucker added wryly: “If we’re doing well, we’ll be OK. If we’re not, we’ll blame it on the fact that we started early.”

NBC faces several hurdles with its post-Olympics strategy. Launching any show before Labor Day has long been considered ill-advised because TV usage levels are much lower than in the fall or winter.

Fox learned to its chagrin this season that huge audiences for sporting events -- in Fox’s case, postseason baseball -- don’t necessarily translate into strong premiere numbers for entertainment programs. Moreover, viewers’ attention after the Olympics might be diverted by the 38th Republican National Convention, scheduled for the week of Aug. 30.

Perhaps most importantly, Nielsen Media Research begins measuring each new season in mid-September, meaning that virtually all of NBC’s premieres will actually be counted for the 2003-04 season. That could be significant because premieres often earn higher ratings than subsequent episodes.

Zucker said the network’s ad sales department will consider the season as beginning right after the Olympics regardless of what Nielsen says. “Just as we can’t be beholden to the actual calendar, we can’t be beholden to the Nielsen calendar either,” he said.

While noting that NBC News will cover the GOP convention, Zucker dismissed the idea of the convention posing formidable competition, presumably because President Bush is not expected to face a serious nomination battle that could spark viewer interest. And he shrugged off the comparison between Olympics and postseason baseball, saying that the two events draw very different audiences.

In a minor piece of scheduling news, Zucker also said that NBC would counterprogram against the Super Bowl on CBS on Feb. 1 with marathon episodes of the Bravo hit “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

When laughter erupted among the reporters, Zucker deadpanned, “It’s too easy.”