Why NBC is one to watch

As the pursuit of the 18-34 crowd gets more frenetic, NBC Universal is counting on a cross-platform model to woo them.

As the pursuit of the 18-34 crowd gets more frenetic, NBC Universal is counting on a cross-platform model to woo them.

From cell phones and the Internet to magazines and movie screens, NBC Universal (NBCU) is sending out messages touting its coverage of the XX Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, faster than Bode Miller on an Alpine trail.

GE-owned NBCU will present a record 418 hours of Olympic coverage on NBC, USA, CNBC, MSNBC, NBC HD, and Universal HD. And cross-promotional efforts - especially off-air - have reached equally record proportions, says Barbara Blangiardi, VP, marketing and special projects, for the NBC Agency, NBC's in-house marketing arm. "It's all bigger," she says.

The Olympics are not only a great "revenue generator for the company, [but] an image enhancer, a launch pad... and a benefit to NBC as a whole," she explains. An aggressive off-air promotional strategy may allow NBCU to present the Olympics - and NBC itself - as more relevant to the elusive 18-to-34 age group.

Though the company does work with outside PR firms, most often on behalf of its cable properties, including Sci-Fi and Telemundo, much of its marketing is through NBC Agency, overseen by EVP of communications Anna Perez.

New marketing course

In January, however, NBCU unveiled a new synergy-based marketing structure, spearheaded by former GE CMO and communications VP Beth Comstock. A trusted advisor to GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, Comstock, now president of NBCU digital media and market development, has been charged with integrating digital media and strategic marketing initiatives, research, advertising, promotions and communications, connecting the dots from its cable channels to its theme parks.

Comstock is intimately familiar with the network's heritage, as well as its need to restore once-lofty ratings in the profitable primetime, morning, and evening-news slots. And as the driving force behind GE's "Imagination at Work" program, she is equally familiar with the vital role of digital media. (Comstock was not available for interview.)

Comstock has moved fast. This month, the network witnessed a major boost in Thursday-night viewership, thanks to cultish The Office, available for commercial-free download on iTunes since early December. It accounted for one-third of all the original NBCU downloads on iTunes, but heightened on-air ratings also suggest the downloads are driving new viewers to the network.

In addition, three new, ad-supported broadband video networks are launching under the umbrella of BravoTV.com, reaching more youth demographics. (Trio is now online only.) NBCU also plans to launch an American Idol-style competition on NBC.com, one of the first broadcast-network series exclusively online. And a recent licensing agreement with Aeon Digital increases online on-demand offerings.

Focus on the network

Right now is also the time for NBC to focus its attention on network programming issues, says Dave Smith, CEO of LA-based media consultancy SmithGeiger.

Events such as the Olympics "offer such additional reach, they are great opportunities to mass-market your own product," he says. "A network should use it as a platform to push up-and-coming shows." Indeed, NBC launched two shows, Conviction and Heist, during the Games.

Still, "you can no longer just put a spot on your network and say that's going to launch a show," warns Joseph Lee, NBC Agency's VP, on-air productions. That's where NBCU's off-channel marketing efforts come into play: NBC has partnered with retailers such as Best Buy to promote its high-definition coverage of the Winter Games. "What's going to sell HDTVs better than 17 days of Olympic sports?" Lee asks.

But while NBCU's USA, Sci-Fi, and Bravo properties rank among cable's most-watched channels, the peacock network itself is struggling to regain the 18-to-34 viewing pool after one of its worst ratings periods ever. The West Wing and Will & Grace are scheduled to end; Katie Couric is reportedly being wooed away from Today by rival CBS; and nobody knows what to do with Joey. One bright spot is Thursday night's sitcom duo, My Name is Earl, and The Office; NBC is also banking on new sports coverage, including NHL, professional poker, and Sunday NFL games (which it takes over from ESPN this fall) to both captivate viewers and serve as cross-promotion platforms.

NBCU is banking on what CMO John Miller calls a "360-degree marketing" plan. Promotions could include touting sit-coms on Universal DVD releases, in theme parks, on cable channels, and via its online and wireless partnerships. NBCU has even recently teamed with United Airlines to offer seasonal program previews on flights. With messages coming from so many outlets, viewers can't help but tune in. The question now: Will there be anything worth watching?

Viewing highlights

Beth Comstock. Her marcomms background gives her inside knowledge about the company and its viewers, making her the perfect candidate for realizing NBCU's digital strategies.

Cross-platform product integration. No need to stop at in-show placement: Products like The "Queer Eye" Shopping Guide let viewers click and buy anything from bleach to designer shirts.

Breakfast battles. Today has pulled far in front of GMA again. But will Katie stay?

The Daily Nightly, NBC's Nightly News blog. An informative, but easy-to-read diary filled with insider commentary by NBC news anchor Brian Williams, and correspondents.

A new generation of Knight Rider fans. With its new Sleuth Channel, NBCU introduces viewers to a steady stream of mystery and crime flicks - and '80s TV classics like Miami Vice.

MSNBC reshuffle. NBCU has taken a controlling interest in the struggling cable news network.

TV BehaviorGraphics partnership. NBCU execs will finally be able to zero in on their preferred viewers with the aid of Simmons Research's Television BehaviorGraphics behavior-targeting technology - said to "identify the best prospects for products and services based on consumers' viewing [habits]."

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