It is unfamiliar territory for the proud peacock, NBC, and its entertainment president, Jeff Zucker.
TV's frenetic February "sweeps" period ended last week, and for the first time in three years the General Electric Co.-owned network failed to finish first in the demographic category that advertisers covet most: 18-to-49-year-old viewers. That prize went to Fox Broadcasting, which claimed its first victory in its 16-year-history by riding the tsunami-sized ratings wave of "Joe Millionaire."
Overall, NBC remains in first place for the season in the 18-to-49 category, but the network is in danger of losing its No. 1 mantle by the time the season officially ends in May. Now it's up to Zucker -- the boy wonder who was dispatched to Burbank from Rockefeller Center in New York in late 2000 to rescue the network's entertainment division -- to pull out a win.
"I'm not sure that I could feel any more pressure," said Zucker. "But there was already an enormous amount of pressure on all of us, so not much has really changed."
The ratings measured during the four-week "sweeps" period are used to set commercial rates for individual TV stations, not for the networks, which sell ads nationally based on season performance. NBC still enjoys considerable success on that front from scripted shows that carry a premium among advertisers, including "Friends," "ER," "Will & Grace," "Law & Order" and "West Wing."
In addition, NBC is on track to make more than $800 million in profit for the year from its prime-time programming alone, network sources said.
"NBC will end the year as the most profitable network, which is the ultimate test of performance," said Leland Westerfield, broadcast analyst for investment banking firm UBS Warburg. "One could hardly say that NBC faltered.... They simply faced competition from Fox with some very, very successful shows."
For TV titans, however, sweeps victories and ratings crowns are more about bragging rights and ego. That's why last week's sweeps loss was particularly stinging to the 37-year-old Zucker, who each season takes the stage before advertisers and journalists to herald NBC's successes.
An aggressive and competitive executive, Zucker's meteoric rise at NBC has been the stuff of legends.
After graduating from Harvard University, the Miami native went to work for NBC's sports division, before moving to the news division and becoming a producer for then-TV reporter Katie Couric. Before he was 29, he was executive producer of the "Today Show" and guided it to become a ratings and financial powerhouse for the network. While at the helm, he survived two bouts with colon cancer.
Zucker was 35 when he was handpicked by NBC Chairman Bob Wright to move to California to work his magic on the network's prestigious prime-time entertainment division.
Within 18 months in Los Angeles, Zucker was clearly in charge, toppling Scott Sassa, who had been NBC's West Coast president, and in effect taking over all the network's West Coast operations. It was Zucker who presided over a string of recent NBC prime-time successes and two of NBC's most successful years. And in the last six months, the network added responsibility for the Bravo cable channel and Spanish-language Telemundo to Zucker's portfolio.
All seemed to be following Zucker's well-worn "success story" script. In January, he confidently predicted: "We will win this season for the seventh time in the last eight years. We have 10 of the top 25 shows."
Then came "Joe Millionaire."
Some NBC executives grumbled that the 40 million viewers Fox reaped on Feb. 17 seemed heaven-sent. A blizzard that day, Presidents Day, had paralyzed the East Coast, keeping millions of viewers at home -- watching the "Joe Millionaire" finale.
Last week, Zucker credited Fox executives, including Fox Television Entertainment Chairman Sandy Grushow, for the network's February victory. And Zucker admitted that he made some programming mistakes.
Zucker said he erred when he took the unusual step of airing "Kingpin," an edgy new drama about a drug lord and his family, twice a week for three weeks. He had hoped the strategy would make the Sunday and Tuesday night viewings an "event." But the audience, conditioned to expect its dramas once a week, failed to follow.
"It was just asking too much of viewers," Zucker said.
Zucker's controversial decision to scrap the Friday night family favorite "Providence" in favor of "Mister Sterling," a drama about a young senator, hasn't worked out as planned. So far, the new show has generated only slightly higher ratings. "We've traded 'Providence' for 'Providence,' " Zucker lamented.
The network's new scripted series also have been disappointing, including a show about a young prosecutor, "A.U.S.A."
Most of all, though, Zucker failed to anticipate the immense popularity of so-called reality shows with a romantic twist.
While Fox scored with "Joe Millionaire" and ABC with "The Bachelor," NBC's main reality success has been the gross-out show "Fear Factor." As a result, Zucker and NBC are playing catch-up. Zucker acknowledges he needs a show about relationships, and will roll out a few later this year, including "Who Wants to Marry My Mom?" Also in the works is an "American Idol"-esque talent show for children.
Zucker predicts a photo-finish for the season between NBC and News Corp.-owned Fox, which has "American Idol" and another search-for-love show, "Married by America," which begins tonight. NBC, Zucker said, will continue to rely on its scripted shows.
"It's going to be a very close race," Zucker said. "And they have a tremendous advantage."
This plays out against an equally troubling backdrop. Westerfield, the analyst, noted that NBC's trademark dramas and comedies such as "Frasier," "ER" and "Friends" are "getting long in the tooth." In addition, Zucker has yet to find a replacement for "Friends," which ends after next year's run.
Earlier this year, rumors that Zucker would soon return to New York reached a fever pitch when NBC President Andrew Lack resigned to head Sony Music.
Zucker has long been viewed as Lack's heir apparent, and is said to enjoy the backing of Wright and GE Chairman Jeff Immelt. Zucker has made no secret about his desire to eventually move back: He currently commutes because his wife, who is pregnant with their third child, prefers New York.
Now, Zucker is trying to downplay questions about his -- and NBC's -- future.
"Look, I've been out here for 2 1/2 years, and since the day I arrived everyone said that NBC was finished, and we keep surviving," Zucker said. "I fully, fully, fully expect and hope to have this title and this job and be here in Burbank doing it for the foreseeable future."