NEW YORK — NBC has found itself in a tough spot since the streaming age began.
On one hand, many of its competitors are finding ways to go directly to consumers, peddling subscription content ad-free. But NBC is owned by Comcast, the biggest provider of traditional cable television and a company with a decided interest in viewers keeping their cords.
On Monday, the network’s executives revealed an unusual strategy for coping with this conflict: split the difference. We’ll get on board with streaming, they essentially proclaimed. But traditional ad-supported television still rules.
“We’re living through tectonic shifts,” said Linda Yaccarino, the network’s head of ad sales, as she went on to talk about the importance of new technology and reaching consumers. “While other companies are pushing advertisers out, we’re bringing [them] in . . . and at a price everyone can afford: free."
Yaccarino was on the Radio City Music Hall stage at its upfront, a spring ritual where ad-supported television companies make their case to Madison Avenue. All week, networks bring stars and programming announcements to New York’s biggest theaters in hopes of attracting ad dollars from those in attendance.
But even amid the stage glitz Monday — Lindsey Vonn talking up Olympians, “The Voice” stars Blake Shelton and Adam Levine playing Rolling Stone covers — it was impossible to avoid the elephant in the room. How should (and can) a big broadcast network compete in the age of ad-free subscription television? And a Comcast-owned network like NBC at that.
Comcast has offered some details on its streaming service, which will arrive next year as its main entrant. (The company has just sold its minority stake in Hulu to Disney.) Rivals Disney and WarnerMedia are scheduled to launch in late 2019.
The ad-based service will be free for Comcast subscribers and cost a monthly fee for those who don’t — “premium content the way people want it and scale the way brands needed it,” Yaccarino said.
The move is an attempt at a kind of double feat: preserve cable subscription and ad dollars without alienating cord-cutters. It remains to be seen whether either will work.
Those who pay for cable, after all, won’t be providing additional revenue. And those who don’t may not be moved to buy yet another service even with “The Office” and other NBC library hits on offer.
The programming NBC touted Monday fits more with the niche of the modern digital age than the mass audience one. Very few of its programs are the kind of big-tent hits on which the network long made its money.
Ted Danson, star of NBC present (“The Good Place”) and past (“Cheers”) took the stage and did his best to connect the then and now. He called NBC’s comedy programming a “culturally relevant powerhouse” over the decades and said that the “current lineup has become iconic in its own right.” But he then cited shows such as “Superstore” and the “Will & Grace” revival, not entirely buttressing the claim.
Seth Meyers, the NBC late-night host, took the stage a few minutes later and poked fun at the idea that “now” compares to “then.” With “Cheers,” he said, the upfront pitch was simple: “Twenty million people would watch . . . and toss up sacks of cash.”
Meyers seemed to take the same streaming half-measures as his employer: He joked about what it would be called — NBC-plus or NBC Gold — but then seemed to wonder whether it was really the network’s future. “By 2022, OTT will stand for, ‘Oh, that thing,’" he said referring to the acronym for streaming’s “Over The Top” industry shorthand.
Yaccarino’s remarks came after a bold video opening in which NBC paid tribute to Apple’s landmark 1984 ad. But in this one, the prisoners stared at their phones and then came to smiling and popcorn-munching life when NBC programming came on a giant collective screen.
“Not a single company — not a newly merged conglomerate or challenged tech company — can promise you all that [we do]," Yaccarino said, alluding clearly to Disney, Fox and Netflix
Yet as the presentation unfolded, the streaming world went on outside. Apple launched Apple Channels, a precursor of sorts to its bigger TV efforts to come. Social media continued to buzz about “Game of Thrones,” a show that has been driving subscriptions to HBO Now and will no doubt be key to WarnerMedia’s catalogue. And “Avengers: Endgame” planned for a Disney streaming launch in December as it continues to rake in coin in theaters.
Then, of course, there’s Netflix, which says it doesn’t need these legacy totems to make its hits work and for subscribers to come running.
NBC executives say they’re unruffled by these new technologies, believing a more personal relationship — whether with viewers or advertisers — remains central.
“There is no algorithm that could imagine or create all” that we just showed you, Yaccarino said at the end of the presentation. “We stand in front of you on top of the highest content mountain.” That may or may not be true. But the earth on which it sits is definitely moving.