A year after its ratings debacle with comedian Jay Leno, NBC has changed course and will air prime-time shows from some of Hollywood’s most expensive producers when the new television season begins this month.
General Electric Co.’s entertainment unit, the least-watched major broadcast network for six straight years, opened its coffers to attract Jerry Bruckheimer and J.J. Abrams, and is introducing seven new shows to recover from last season’s failed experiment with Leno’s talk show in prime time.
“It was time to reinvest,” Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal TV Entertainment, said in an interview. “We had spent the last several years shrinking our business by looking at the economics and maybe we went too far.”
NBC programmers probably had to earmark $125 million to $150 million for new-show development, about double last year’s total, according to researcher Jack Myers of the Jack Myers Media Business Report. Angela Bromstad, president of prime-time entertainment, declined to say how much NBC spent for new shows or how much Bruckheimer and Abrams commanded.
The network, which cable-TV company Comcast Corp. agreed to buy in a merger now before U.S. regulators, is replacing almost a third of its weekly prime-time lineup, with 6.5 hours of new shows. The network isn’t aiming to topple first place CBS Corp. or No. 2 Fox, owned by News Corp. Success would mean climbing out of last and dislodging Walt Disney Co.’s ABC from third.
“Our real competition is ABC,” Bromstad said in an interview.
To that end, New York-based NBC sought high-powered talent associated with CBS and ABC. “The Chase,” about U.S. Marshals, is from Bruckheimer, producer of CBS’s “CSI” series. The network also paid up for the husband-wife spy thriller “Undercovers” by Abrams, creator of ABC’s “Lost.”
“We really wanted to get into business with outside producers who could give us the kinds of shows that will get immediate attention,” Bromstad said.
In addition, NBC dropped the long-running “Law and Order” and picked up the spinoff “Law & Order: Los Angeles” from franchise producer Dick Wolf. NBC starts the season Sept. 14.
The biggest changes are at 10 p.m., with new programs “Chase,” “Outlaw” and the latest “Law and Order” on three nights as the network tries to win back viewers who left during the Leno run that ended in February. At 9 p.m. Mondays NBC is airing “The Event,” a global conspiracy thriller in the mold of Fox’s “24.”
“NBC has to climb out of a pretty big hole,” said Andy Donchin, director of media investments at Carat North America, a New York-based advertising agency whose clients include Papa John’s International Inc. “Every network would like a hit every year. NBC needs a hit and a half, or two.”
In the season that ended in May, NBC placed last in total audience with 8.26 million viewers nightly, compared with ABC’s 8.71 million, according to Nielsen Co. data. In the 18-to-49-year-old age group that advertisers target, just 20,000 viewers separated ABC, with 3.58 million viewers, from fourth-place NBC.
Those ratings represent a recovery from NBC’s earlier 2010 lows, before the Vancouver Olympics, when the audience had shrunk 13 percent in total viewers and 17 percent in 18 to 49, based on Nielsen data at the time.
Donchin, who says his agency buys time on almost every prime-time show, is especially high on NBC’s newest “Law and Order” because of its “pedigree.” He is less certain about the rest of the NBC lineup.
ABC isn’t standing still. After suffering the steepest audience loss of all major networks last season, Burbank, California-based Disney replaced programming chief Steve McPherson in July with Paul Lee, who previously ran the ABC family channel on cable. The network is also adding seven shows.
The programs include “No Ordinary Family,” about a family that develops super powers while on vacation in the Amazon. The show will air before ABC’s most-watched “Dancing With the Stars” on Tuesday nights. The gritty crime drama “Detroit 1-8-7” follows “Dancing.”
On Wednesdays, ABC will air the comedy newcomer “Better With You” at 8:30 p.m., ahead of last year’s returning hit “Modern Family.”
“The goal this year is to grow with successes like ‘Modern Family’ or to stay even, and even that is getting harder to do every year in this business,” Jeff Bader, ABC Entertainment’s executive vice president of planning, said in an interview.
While NBC is targeting ABC, Fox may stand in the way.
Fox, which led in 18 to 49 last season, is moving the musical comedy “Glee” to 8 p.m. Tuesdays in its second season to anchor a comedy night that includes “Raising Hope,” about a single dad who finds he has fathered a child with a woman who is in jail.
They will challenge the returning NBC show “The Biggest Loser.”
“‘Glee’ gives us a chance to create a comedy block on Tuesday night, where there isn’t much comedy now,” Preston Beckman, Fox TV Entertainment’s executive vice-president of strategic programming, said in an interview.
The two networks also will battle on Mondays, when Fox airs “Lone Star,” a soap opera featuring newcomer James Wolk as a charismatic Texas schemer, against “The Event.” “Lone Star” may benefit by following the high-rated medical drama “House,” Beckman said.
New York-based CBS, the leader in total viewers, also may thwart NBC with the action-charged remake of “Hawaii Five-0” on Mondays against “Chase.” The original show with Jack Lord ran from 1968 to 1980.
CBS also moved “The Big Bang Theory,” its top 10-rated Monday night sitcom about geeks, to Thursdays at 8 p.m., before the NBC comedies “30 Rock” and “The Office.”
The aim is to generate viewers for "$#*! My Dad Says,” featuring former “Star Trek” captain William Shatner as a politically incorrect dad, said Kelly Kahl, senior executive vice president of prime time at CBS.
“We can schedule most of our shows behind proven successes,” Kahl said in an interview. “We don’t really have to cross our fingers.”