NBC’s Burke Sees End to Drought With Season Ratings Win

NBC expects to be back in the No. 1 spot when the television season finishes, ending a decade-long drought in the ratings game.

The broadcast network, which aired the Sochi Winter Olympics and “Sunday Night Football,” will close the season with the biggest audience in prime time among viewers ages 18 to 49, the group advertisers pay the most to reach, according to NBCUniversal Chief Executive Officer Steve Burke.

“In less than three years, we’ve gone from fourth to first,” Burke said yesterday at a press event ahead of TV networks’ presentations to advertisers next month of their new schedules.

The ratings victory may give NBC’s biggest advertisers renewed confidence for the new season after seeing the network consistently lose in the ratings to CBS Corp. and 21st Century Fox Inc. NBC’s prime-time lineup also featured “The Voice” and “The Blacklist.”

“No one has ever been in fourth place for that long, and some believed we would never be able to come back from that sort of deficit,” Burke said. He became head of NBCUniversal in 2011 after its acquisition by Comcast Corp., assuming oversight of the broadcast network along with several cable channels and the Universal film studio.

Summer Programming

Burke expects NBC to beat Fox by about 12 percent among 18-to-49-year-olds this season. Last year, NBC had about 24 percent of those viewers among the four major broadcast networks, compared with Fox’s 29 percent and CBS’s 25 percent. So far this season, NBC has captured 30 percent of broadcast TV viewers in the demographic.

NBC is also adding programs for the summer months -- a season broadcasters have typically ignored -- with six new scripted series and three reality shows. Other networks such as CBS have already created programming for the period as advertisers look to reach people year round.

“We’re all competing straight through the summer now,” Burke said. “To us this notion of talking about a broadcast season doesn’t make sense. We’re all moving to a 52-week season.”

In addition to claiming a prime-time victory, Burke noted gains at the network’s morning news program, “The Today Show,” as well as “The Tonight Show,” which was handed to comedian Jimmy Fallon earlier this year after being hosted by Jay Leno for more than two decades, aside from a brief hiatus. Both shows are No. 1 in the 18-to-49 age category, Burke said.

‘Difficult Handoffs’

In the case of “Today,” about half of its ads are sold to reach that demographic, with the other half targeting the 25-to-54 age group. That’s a shift as news programs are typically sold only to target the older demographic.

Fallon was a “very big bet,” Burke said. Conan O’Brien took over as host of the “Tonight Show” in 2009 and lasted less than a year before Leno was reinstated.

“We’ve had some difficult handoffs,” Burke said. “This one couldn’t have been more graceful. Jay Leno’s last three words on the ‘Tonight Show’ were, ‘Watch Jimmy Fallon.’”

David Letterman, who hosts CBS Corp.’s rival late-night show, announced last week he will retire next year. Speculation has mounted about who could take over, and the list has included Tina Fey, who has a long-running relationship with NBC on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock.”

While the network couldn’t stop Fey from pursuing the show, “we think she’s very happy here,” Burke said.

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