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March 8, 2013

NBC's Thursday lineup becomes 'must flee TV'

Thursday was once the most profitable night of the week for NBC. But the network’s prime-time ratings and fortunes have eroded dramatically in recent years, forcing network executives to rethink their strategy.

Last fall, NBC’s schedule contained a curious recruit for the marquee time slot of 10 p.m. Thursday: “Rock Center With Brian Williams.”

The news magazine show occupied the spot once reserved for the hallmark NBC dramas “ER,” “LA Law” and “Hill Street Blues.” Ratings for Williams’ show were weak, attracting fewer than 4 million viewers an episode.

Worse, NBC advertising executives struggled to sell the show’s commercial time to Hollywood film studios that long have spent lavishly on Thursday to promote their weekend movie releases.

This month, NBC executives shifted “Rock Center” to Friday, and its ratings grew 10 percent. NBC filled the Thursday-night slot with the medical drama “Do No Harm.” Executives figured that it could do no worse — but it did. “Do No Harm” scored record-low ratings and was yanked after just two episodes.

NBC’s crumbling Thursday lineup — ratings are down 20 percent from last season — illustrates the challenges facing the Comcast Corp.-owned broadcast network as it labors to reverse a decade of audience declines. NBC now attracts 5.2 million viewers Thursday, a fraction of its audience a decade ago, according to Nielsen.

Things could get worse: Two of the network’s primary Thursday comedies, “The Office” and Tina Fey’s “30 Rock,” are ending their runs, leaving NBC with even more holes on the most profitable night of television.

“Thursday night has to be a priority for NBC,” Jason Maltby, a top advertising buyer with the ad agency Mindshare, said in an interview. “It is a key night for marketers looking to drive their weekend sales.”

From the late 1990s to about 2003, NBC generated as much as $800 million in annual profit from its “Must See TV” lineup, which boasted such defining shows as “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Will & Grace.” “Friends” drew more than 17 million viewers an episode in its last two seasons.

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