NBC Universal Struts Its Stuff to Advertisers: Look Beyond the Peacock

To some, the big news yesterday when NBC Universal held a forum featuring its integrated ad sales team, was that Donnie Deutsch, the program's moderator, was let back into NBC's headquarters. He had had a kerfuffle about his cancelled MSNBC guest turn last week, which allegedly involved Keith Olbermann.

But if you're interested in the future economics of television -- be it broadcast or cable -- the real news was that NBCU is discovering the joys of pooling inventory across its (weak) broadcast and (strong) cable properties. Of course, that's partly a defensive strategy when your big broadcast property is running fourth. But it's also a glimpse into what TV ad sales will look like in the future, whether today's strong broadcast players (like BNET's corporate overlord, CBS), want to admit it or not. Last season, overall network share declined by 16 percent; sure, there are bright spots like CBS' "NCIS" and Fox's "Glee", but the prospects are bleak.

So NBCU is refining its pitch to advertisers and agencies. By purchasing across the NBCU portfolio -- which includes NBC, USA, Bravo, MSNBC, CNBC, Oxygen and Syfy -- it is telling advertisers that they can reach 90 percent of the people in the U.S. each month. Since reach is one of the big metrics buyers use to decide what TV to buy, this appeal makes sense. USA, the top-rated cable network, and SyFy alone drew almost four million viewers in prime-time last week, according to Nielsen. Though not an apples-to-apples comparison, the first half-hour of NBC's much-hyped "Parenthood" had about 5.7 million viewers. Add lesser-rated NBCU cable networks into the equation, and you've got a real horse race between NBC and its sibling properties.

NBCU isn't playing the reach card alone with its integrated sales approach. It is also selling niches, which come in three flavors: Women@NBCU; Green is Universal; and Healthy@NBCU. (In addition, advertisers can customize their own deals.) What NBCU is seeing is if it can use its TV footprint to appeal to the varying buying tastes of advertisers. While huge deals that reach viewers en masse still get the most money, online has proven the validity of selling across niches. For some advertisers, that will be the way to go.

NBCU execs did not talk pricing, which is something that will be dealt with in the modern equivalent of a smoke-filled room when the time comes. But don't expect NBCU to sell network and cable at the same ad rate. Yes, it's ridiculous that a network show should garner a much higher ad rate than a show that is getting a comparable rating on cable -- as happens more and more these days. But Rome wasn't built in a day, or in the changing TV landscape, a decade or so. Nonetheless, what NBCU is doing is a step towards the future.

Previous coverage of the upfront at BNET Media: