Comcast to invest additional $300 million for NBC programming

LOS ANGELESComcast Corp. this year plans to spend $300 million more for television programming to revive the ailing NBC broadcast network and keep the company’s cable channels humming.

NBC Universal Chief Executive Steve Burke on Wednesday renewed Comcast’s long-standing pledge to invest millions of dollars more for television programming than had General Electric Co. Comcast became the majority owner of NBC Universal in late January, and now GE is the minority partner.

During a conference call with analysts to discuss Comcast’s first-quarter earnings, Burke said the company would spend $200 million more this year on prime-time shows to try to give the cellar-dwelling NBC network a lift in the ratings. The Philadelphia-based cable giant also plans to pump in an additional $100 million on programming for the company’s profitable cable networks—including USA, Syfy, E! and Bravo—to keep the channels at the top of their game.

Much of the $200 million destined for NBC is to restock the 10 p.m. time slot with scripted shows after the previous regime’s debacle of placing Jay Leno in prime time for four months in 2009 and early 2010. More than a year later, NBC continues to struggle to regain its footing with dramas and comedies at 10 p.m.

“The real key to turning around NBC is not necessarily increasing the investment. The real key is making better shows,” Burke said.

This spring, NBC ordered 21 pilots—about
the same as a year ago, when the network began trying to dig out from
the Leno disaster. Burke said he and other company leaders will soon
screen NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt’s first slate of prime-time programming. NBC plans to unveil its fall schedule in New York on May 16.

For the quarter ended March 31, NBC broadcast revenue of $1.35 billion was down 35 percent, primarily due to lower advertising sales. In the first quarter of 2010, NBC’s top line was inflated with $782 million in revenue from its coverage of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Analysts wanted to know whether a Comcast-run NBC Universal would spend wildly to retain its sports franchises, including the Olympics. NBC Universal ended up losing $223 million on its coverage of the Vancouver games, an embarrassment for GE and a financial miscalculation that few want to see repeated.

NBC also loses more than $100 million a year on its NFL “Sunday Night Football” contract.

But Burke refused to reveal that page of his playbook.

“We’re in business to make money, and our approach
is going to be disciplined,” Burke said. “As it relates to the Olympics
or the NFL, we think
those are two fantastic properties and would love to have them, but we
would like to make money. … At the end of the day, we are not going
to do anything that doesn’t have a business plan that pencils out.”

Comcast also separately reported the financial results of its Los Angeles-based Universal Pictures’ unit. For the first quarter, the studio brought in $975 million
in revenue, an 8 percent decline from the year-earlier period. The
studio’s losses were due to increased marketing costs for its upcoming
films, lower DVD sales and some duds at the box office.

“We are well aware of the challenges in the film
business, and the fact that the DVD business has declined,” Burke said.
“But part of it is that we need to make better films — and that’s a
real area of focus for us as well.”


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