NBC Welcomes Promotion Synergy

Times Staff Writer

NBC's new motto, "Imagine the Possibilities," couldn't be more appropriate.

When it comes to lavishly promoting its own shows, General Electric Co.'s NBC has pulled out the stops -- even using news programs like "Dateline" and "Today" to feature segments from sitcoms, including "Friends" and "Frasier." And that was before GE officially closed its acquisition Wednesday of Vivendi Universal's U.S. entertainment assets.

The marriage brings a rich dowry of new cross-pollination opportunities, ranging from Universal movies like "Van Helsing" -- already in development as a TV series at NBC -- to Sci Fi Channel's upcoming miniseries "5ive Days to Midnight."

Despite criticism that NBC's news programs have been turned into brazen marketing tools for several of the network's prime-time series finales, the management of the combined company seems delighted with the promotional firepower of its enterprise.

NBC Universal executives are conjuring up ways to plug TV shows at Universal's theme parks. Bob Wright, the company's chairman and chief executive, underscored NBC Universal's "unparalleled promotional firepower" during a news conference Wednesday unveiling the new entity.

In fact, cross-promotion "is one of the things that we have proven we know how to do and we're good at," said an unapologetic Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal Television Group's president. He added that "you will see very much the same thing with USA and Sci Fi," the newly acquired Universal cable networks.

The all-in-the-family logrolling in recent months has clearly been most noticeable with the network's news shows, particularly a two-hour "Dateline" last week devoted to the "Friends" finale, along with a week's worth of "Friends"-related special reports on "Today." The exiting "Frasier" has been similarly fawned over, and "Dateline" devoted an entire show to "The Apprentice."

The "Friends" package on "Dateline," in particular, paid off, landing 14.7 million viewers, making the news show the 15th-ranked program of the week and far exceeding the just-under 10 million viewers who typically tune in the show's Friday edition, its most popular. And an appearance by the "Friends" cast on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" after the finale helped boost "Tonight" to its most-watched week in six years.

Other recent examples:

* A convoluted cross-promotion this year that had Donald Trump appear on ad executive Donny Deutsch's CNBC special, Deutsch appear on Trump's "The Apprentice" and both turn up on "Today" for an "Apprentice"-related stunt.

* Back-scratching references built into dialogue including a "West Wing" episode in which one character talked about another character's becoming an NBC News reporter, Tracy Morgan joking on his sitcom about "Today's" Al Roker and Matt Lauer and the "Law & Order" detective team making a crack about Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

* A double play for several episodes of "Queer Eye," first on the cable channel, then NBC, a strategy that helped make it a cable hit.

Although NBC embraces the cross-references, not all of them are ordered from the top down.

"No, no, no, no," said Dick Wolf, executive producer of "Law & Order," when asked whether NBC had asked him to slip the Bravo show into the script, adding that there was no corporate policy "that I know about."

John Wells, "The West Wing" executive producer, said through a spokeswoman that he had never had a conversation with NBC about the occasional NBC references that are written into his show's scripts.

NBC's cross-promotional efforts are merely adopting -- though intensifying -- a tact already being used by other media conglomerates.

In February, a number of ABC scripted shows wove mentions of the ABC-televised Academy Awards into their plotlines. Contestants booted off CBS' "Survivor" routinely appear on the news division's "The Early Show," and "Early Show" anchor Julie Chen hosts another of the network's unscripted series, "Big Brother."

Still, some critics have charged that NBC's display of synergy in its news programs has crossed the line: Phil Rosenthal, TV critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote this week, "The 'Dateline' brand is cheapened every time it's prostituted to shill for other NBC shows."

"Today" co-anchor Katie Couric acknowledged the issue in a recent interview with CNN's Larry King, saying "it's a very slippery slope and extremely dangerous enterprise." She added: "I think there's a fine line between synergy and news that may be feeding one arm of an organization and on its own doesn't have news value."

Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said he was comfortable with the duality. He suggested newsmagazines and morning shows "have always been in this fluid undefined territory where when there is big breaking news they can really deliver hard-core journalism and, at the same time, they can also be employed as essentially adjuncts to the promotional department, in a way that would never work with the evening news." He noted that the "Friends" and "Frasier" editions of "Dateline" delivered strong ratings and thus ad revenue.

For his part, Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News, defended cross-promotion. He said news programs would themselves be seeking some audience-generating goodies elsewhere within NBC Universal. He also said he was looking forward to not having to fight with rivals for an interview with, say, the star of a breakout Universal film; the studio has Vin Diesel starring in "The Chronicles of Riddick" in June and Matt Damon in "The Bourne Supremacy" in July.

"We're going to get it," he said, adding that it would be a "big advantage." Zucker likewise defended NBC News' recent shows on NBC Entertainment finales, noting they accounted for just a fraction of what "Dateline" covers in a year and adding that it would have been "a mistake" for "Dateline" to ignore such popular programs.

"To penalize 'Dateline' and say they should not be able to cover 'Friends' and 'Frasier' just because they are in the NBC family would be like saying Time and CNN can't do stories about HBO's 'The Sopranos,' " all of which are part of Time Warner Inc., he said. "That's asinine."

As for USA and Sci Fi, Zucker said the upcoming premieres of the new season of "Monk" and the miniseries "5ive Days to Midnight" were candidates for some sort of cross-promotional attention, noting, "We are fully integrated."

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