Zucker: Enough About Ratings, Let's Talk Margins

NBC kicks off the network upfronts today, where it shows off its upcoming schedule for advertisers. But don’t pay attention to the clips of the shows the networks are showcasing: A skillful editor can make Joey look good, given the right conditions.

Instead, pay attention to the body language — or at least the verbal posturing — of the network titans. NBC U chief Jeff Zucker has given a few interviews, and interestingly, he’s not promising NBC’s fall schedule will make it No. 1 again. After a bunch of years stuck in last place, he’s got a different message: NBC’s fall schedule will be profitable for the network.

Zucker explained to TVWeek:

We want to have great shows. We think we do with “Heroes,” and “Law & Order: SVU” and “The Office” and “30 Rock” and “Friday Night Lights,” you know, up and down the line. But we’re managing for margin, not for ratings. So it’s the expense of our shows, the consistency of our shows being on the schedule. It’s not determined by the size of the ratings, because the size of the ratings of a show we cannot afford is not going to do us any good anymore. This is not because we do not have the outsized hits that we once did. This is because we are in a different environment where the difference between the first and fourth or second and third is incredibly minimal.

This is more a Wall Street message than a Madison Avenue message. Translation: upfront ad dollars may be down this year, but we’re running the business for profitability.

This has, by the way, has also become the networks’ most powerful message. The writers strike helped accellerate the decline of broadcast ratings–and the shift of viewers to cable–but the parent companies of all four networks, NBC (GE), CBS (CBS), Fox (NWS), and ABC (DIS), reported higher TV profits due, in part, to less spending on expensive TV pilots and writer/producer deals.

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