By Yinka Adegoke and Liana B. Baker
(Reuters) - The NBC network brought a monkey to pitch new programs to prospective advertisers on Monday, looking to highlight a new comedy set in a veterinary clinic rather than the circus its primetime lineup has been in recent years.
"Animal Practice" was among the shows NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt showcased at the upfront presentations held at Radio City Music Hall in Midtown Manhattan, as the network looks to finally climb out of the ratings basement.
That would be something of a revolution for NBC and new owners, Comcast Corp. "Revolution", coincidently, is the name of a futuristic drama that Greenblatt also commissioned for this year's schedule.
"I keep harping on how long it is going to take to rebuild this network. But we are going to do it, I promise," Greenblatt told the audience of advertising executives, marketers and TV industry insiders.
"The fact is we will be in a photofinish with ABC for No. 3 and not No. 4 in adults 18-49 and I find that very encouraging," Greenblatt said of competition with the Disney-owned rival.
Upfront week is the television industry's annual rite where networks preview their upcoming shows in the hopes of getting them to buy commercial time in advance.
So far this year NBC is averaging about 7.4 million total viewers in primetime, according to Nielsen, which despite being an increase of 300,000 over last season still ranks the network dead last behind ABC, News Corp's FOX, and CBS Corp.
But in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 year old demographic, NBC's 3.2 million average so far this season actually bests ABC's by about 100,000, mainly because NBC broadcast this year's Super Bowl, which heavily skewed its audience figures younger.
Lyle Schwartz, managing partner at media buying firm GroupM, said small victories are all NBC can hope for right now.
"They need to develop solid programming and build upon their success," Schwartz said. "Greenblatt isn't saying they will be No. 1 next year, but he's saying he hopes from his belief that this schedule will help them move up the ranks."
HITS AND MISSES
Comcast acquired control of NBC in a $30 billion deal in 2010 and anointed Greenblatt, who had just come off a phenomenal run of developing hit shows such as "Dexter," "Weeds," and "The L Word" for cable's Showtime network, as its handpicked successor to turnaround the struggling network.
Financially, NBC's first quarter revenue jumped 17 percent to $1.6 billion, exclusive of its Super Bowl broadcast. Its revenue grew by 37 percent to $1.85 billion if the additional revenue generated by the game are included.
Advertising revenue, the bulk of any network's revenue mix and the entire reason behind lavish events such as the upfronts, increased 39 percent to $1.26 billion.
In terms of programming, however, Greenblatt's performance has been mixed. NBC does have its first hit in a long time with the singing competition "The Voice," but that show was inherited upon his arrival, not developed under his watch.
Greenblatt bet big on "Smash," a musical drama featuring Katharine McPhee - who made an appearance Monday to serenade advertisers - that started off slowly but has managed to retain a loyal audience large enough to warrant a second season.
Other shows were not so lucky, however, as high-profile dramas such as "The Playboy Club" and "Prime Suspect" failed to connect and were cancelled shortly after their debuts.
In addition to returning shows like "The Office," "30 Rock," and "Whitney," Greenblatt will put 16 news shows on NBC's schedule this year. Seven of those 16 shows are comedies, as NBC attempts to recapture the halcyon days of the early '90s when sitcoms like "Friends" and "Seinfeld" dominated the ratings.
At its presentation Monday, NBC showcased "Go On," a show about a sportscaster in group therapy starring former 'Friend' Matthew Perry.
The network also highlighted a show from "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy about a gay couple and their surrogate called "The New Normal," which some are already comparing with ABC's hit comedy "Modern Family," and a comedy from late-night host Jimmy Fallon called "Guys with Kids." Another sitcom lined up is a family comedy set in the White House called "1600 Penn."
Media buyers and financial analysts alike prefer comedies to dramas because they are better at attracting younger audiences and have a far better resale value.
Maureen Bosetti, a media buyer for Optimedia said she liked "Go On," "The New Normal" and "1600 Penn" because they had laughs but with strong writing and an emotional side. "These shows are in the vein of being smart with heart," she said.
NBC also commissioned five new dramas for the season including "Revolution" an expensive sci-fi show some have described as "The Hunger Games" meets "Lost." Depending on how it connects with audiences, "Revolution" could be a huge prestige hit for NBC or a costly mistake.
"Science fiction has not taken off in recent years but this doesn't mean it won't work," said GroupM's Schwartz. "It remains to be seen whether can generate the audience and ratings and unit pricing to match the production costs."
MORE SHOWS, SHORTER ORDERS
As traditional broadcasters face competition for viewers time from cable, the Internet, and tablet computers, they are also trying to be innovative in show formats.
To that end, NBC has ordered just 13 episodes of some shows rather than the usual 22 in an attempt to stay more nimble and keep its costs under control. Greenblatt said it was the "only way to make the math work."
Repeats do not perform well in the age of video recorders and video-on-demand, Schwartz said. "This keeps things fresh, to have a 13 week season and then go onto a new season. If they do well, they can give them a full season extension."
(Reporting By Yinka Adegoke and Liana Baker; Writing by Peter Lauria; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)