When major sports events on the other networks inspire cheers, NBC turns on the tears.
NBC is crying all the way to the ratings bank. Its romantic tear-jerkers opposite the World Series and the baseball playoffs last fall delivered a huge audience of women.
On Monday, the network offers “Changes,” based on the Danielle Steel best-seller, against the NCAA Basketball Championship Game on CBS.
“Last year was the first time we didn’t have baseball,” says Ruth Slawson, NBC’s senior vice president for miniseries and motion pictures.
“A very conscious effort was made to offer the audience a real choice against a sports event.”
Slawson says what she looks for is the dramatic equivalent of a big sports event.
“We want a recognizable title and name,” she says. “I think we look for pieces that obviously will interest women. Women do look at sports, but they’re not as passionate about sports as men. We also look for a piece that will attract men because it may be a sport or a team that doesn’t interest them.
“We look for a good story, a good yarn. A good story as opposed to an issue-oriented or fact-based piece. Sports is escapism and so are our pieces. You don’t counterprogram by giving them hard reality. You counterprogram by giving them another choice in the same venue.”
The networks in the past have frequently countered sports events with shows that appeal to women. But they were not originally made for that reason.
The effort at NBC, begun more than a year ago by Brandon Tartikoff, chairman of the NBC Entertainment Group, is believed to be the first time a network has ever developed shows specifically to counterprogram against sports.
“It was Brandon Tartikoff’s inspiration that we would strongly program against sports,” Slawson says. “So far we’ve been successful. I think the key lies in the long-range planning.”
“In the past, all networks have put female-appeal movies against sports. It’s Programming 101. On New Year’s Day night when NBC and ABC air bowl games, CBS runs a female-appeal movie and does very well,” says Preston Beckman, the network’s vice president for audience research.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that sports attracts a large male audience, and therefore if you offer women viewers something appealing they’re going to watch. It’s common sense that in Danielle Steel and Jackie Collins you have pre-sold commodities.”
Cheryl Ladd and Michael Nouri star in “Changes,” which was adapted from Steel’s best-selling novel by Susan Nanus and was directed by Charles Jarrott.
Ladd plays a New York television correspondent with two teen-age daughters who falls in love with a world-famous Los Angeles heart surgeon (Nouri). She must curtail her own career and face a family crisis to marry him.
“Our target audience are those people who aren’t watching basketball,” Slawson says. “That’s not just women. We can’t get a big rating without men. And whether men admit it or not they do read Danielle Steel. ‘Changes’ is as much a man’s story as a woman’s story.”
In the fall, two Danielle Steel shows, “Kaleidoscope” and “Fine Things,” went up against the World Series on CBS. “Kaleidoscope” got a 20.3 rating and a 32 share. It was the highest-rated movie of the season on any network until it was surpassed by CBS’ “Sarah, Tall and Plain” in February.
“Fine Things” was fourth. It got a rating of 18.0 and a 28 share and was the highest-rated entertainment program to play against the first game of a World Series since 1983.
“Jackie Collins’ ‘Lucky Chances’ ” was televised as a three-part miniseries against the baseball playoff games in October. It got an overall rating of 17.0 with a 27 share, placing fifth among miniseries for the season.
“We’re not trying to take audiences away from sports,” Beckman says. “They’re going to get their audience, and we’re going to try to get a big chunk of what’s left over.
“The strategy was successful in the sense that we used these shows against sports. We got some men, but the audience was predominantly women.”
NBC is in negotiations with Collins for more shows, but nothing has been set.
“Her pieces are bigger in scope and less based in reality,” Slawson says. “They have a harder edge and they’re steamier. People tend to lump these women authors together, but they’re quite different.”
Slawson says NBC is also developing shows to program against the World Series this fall and the Winter Olympics in February 1992.
Danielle Steel was an obvious choice for NBC. She is one of the most popular novelists in the United States and her 25 best-selling books have sold more than 150 million copies.
In a recent issue of Publishers Weekly, Steel’s “Heartbeat” was the top-selling hardcover fiction book. “Daddy” was eighth on the Canadian best-seller list. Her book “Message From Nam” was fifth for all of 1990, selling more than a million copies.
“Changes” airs Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC.