NBC leads a different upfront charge

Meet the Press host Tim Russert doesn't play a comic straight man, at least not intentionally. But he found himself thrust into that role last week when he passed Kitt — the talking car from NBC's upcoming revival of the action drama series Knight Rider.

"I will race you anywhere, any time, Mr. Russert," the car's robotic voice told the newsman, who gamely smiled. "You don't frighten me. Shouldn't you be interviewing a politico or something? And by the way, they told me that I'd get (MSNBC's Chris) Matthews. How did I get you?"

That awkward interchange wasn't quite what NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker had in mind in February when he decided to scrap NBC's annual Radio City Music Hall show to present its fall prime-time schedule to advertisers.

He intended to make an important point by putting a tent over the Rockefeller Center skating rink on May 12 and herding ad buyers through what the company called the NBC Universal Experience — an extravagant collection of exhibits promoting the company's broadcast TV, cable, digital media, movie and theme park assets.

Zucker wants to change the way the General Electric-owned ge media giant and other broadcasters do business as they enter the frenzied weeks when networks typically sell about 75% of their ad time for the prime-time season that begins in September.

Specifically, he wants to scrap the idea that broadcast TV matters only in a September-to-May season. He also wants advertisers to cut deals to slap messages on multiple NBCU properties, not just NBC's prime-time shows.

"The world has changed," he says. "Our competition is not just broadcast networks — it's cable networks and video games and online social sites. If we're going to wring our hands over the fact that we want the days of the three broadcast networks to come back, then we will get left behind."

The NBC Universal Experience represents a departure from the industry norm: Networks typically invite advertisers to presentations in which executives introduce their prime-time shows for the fall and trot out stars to mingle with the buyers at extravagant parties with abundant supplies of liquor and shrimp.

NBC kept the party and the stars. But the No. 4 network also was eager to promote its efforts to address the technology-fueled change that has swept the industry — and gave USA TODAY a rare opportunity to accompany Zucker as he made his sales pitches to executives, clients and anybody else who'd listen at this vital annual rite.

The early, or "upfront," sales provide security for everyone: Advertisers know how much air time they can count on, and how much they'll have to pay, as they plan to introduce new products or promote existing ones. And they give networks an idea of how much cash they can expect — and how popular their shows must be for them to collect it.

It's hard to say whether Zucker's changes are driven by boldness, desperation or a little of both. Whatever his motivation, it's one that others in the industry might share.

ABC dis, CBS cbs, Fox nws, NBC and The CW collectively lost 3.4 million viewers in the season that just ended; NBC's audience fell 9%.

That's one reason the networks could see as much as a 14% drop compared with the $8.9 billion that advertisers committed last year in the upfront sales period — which begins in mid-May and ends by July 4 — Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen forecasts.

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