NBC stumbles in marketing its new animated series
LOS ANGELES -- When taped remarks from Roy Horn were played for a recent gathering in New York, the Las Vegas magician recovering from a near fatal tiger mauling was met with respectful silence.
Silence, too, greeted what followed in the NBC sales presentation to Madison Avenue: Clips of "Father of the Pride," an animated comedy based on Horn and partner Siegfried Fischbacher's act, failed to draw laughs.
In a New York minute, bad buzz had started humming for one of NBC's highest-profile fall series.
"'King of the Pride' is DOA," was the headline the following day (May 18) in an online newsletter distributed by industry analyst Jack Myers.
"The animated series was in far worse shape" than Horn, Myers wrote, "and the reaction of NBC's advertising clients was so negative that it's unlikely the program will last on NBC's schedule."
In assessing advertiser response to new series, USA Today reported last week that "Joey," NBC's "Friends" spinoff, could strike gold but that several unidentified media buyers had doubts about "Father of the Pride."
The comedy represents a high-stakes gamble as part of the prime-time animation genre that, aside from a few Fox shows like "The Simpsons," has largely flopped. It's also costly, at up to a reported $2.5 million per episode.
NBC isn't conceding any weakness in the series or its chances of success, according to Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group.
But he acknowledged a marketing misstep at the annual "upfront" presentation, which allows media-buying firms and advertisers to peek at new series before placing preseason orders for ad time.
"I think we did a very poor job of putting the clips together at the upfront, and I think that didn't work and that was our fault," he told The Associated Press. "But the fact is that anyone who has seen the show as a whole ... the reaction is fantastic."
After screening four completed episodes, he said, the network ordered the final "back nine" scripts of a full 22-episode order.
"With all due respect, none of those (post-upfront) comments matter. What matters is when they see the show as a whole," Zucker said.
He said that after last year's New York presentation, buyers decreed NBC's "Las Vegas" was a loser. The series starring James Caan as a casino boss proved to be the 2003-04 season's highest-rated new drama.
The network also may have erred in including Horn as part of the program. Although the entertainer is making a remarkable recovery, his condition (including paralysis in one hand) clearly dampened the New York audience's mood.
"You almost feel you're going to the intensive care unit," industry analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television said in recalling the reaction -- adding that he understood Horn and NBC's eagerness to show his improvement.
"I think that may have been a fair criticism," Zucker said of questions raised about including Horn in the program. Horn and Fischbacher have co-executive producer credits on the series.
"Father of the Pride" has been touted by NBC and producer DreamWorks SKG as a breakthrough in computer-generated animation for TV and a key part of NBC's fall schedule. It's taking over the 9 p.m. Tuesday time slot vacated by the recently ended "Frasier."
The network also is devoting a 90-minute special this fall to Horn, including an interview conducted by Maria Shriver, the former "Dateline NBC" reporter who is now California's first lady.
The pedigree for "Father of the Pride" is impeccable: DreamWorks is the studio behind "Shrek 2," the animated film setting box-office records as it more than repeats the success of the original.
The TV comedy is an edgy, satirical take on Siegfried and Roy, their Las Vegas stage act and the notion that their show animals lead routine domestic lives with a touch of Vegas kitsch.
The "stars" are easygoing Larry the white lion, voiced by John Goodman; his sensible mate Kate (Cheryl Hines of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"), their two offspring and Kate's overbearing dad (Carl Reiner). Siegfried and Roy are voiced by Julian Holloway and Dave Herman.
On a recent visit to DreamWorks, a reporter was shown laugh-provoking snippets of the show, which hopes to capture advertiser-favored 18- to 49-year-old viewers more than youngsters.
When Larry and Kate confront their teenage daughter after finding drugs -- catnip -- in her room, she claims innocence and snaps angrily: "Maybe it's Siegfried and Roy's. That would definitely explain the outfits."
Segments of the animated TV comedy shown to the media, to ad buyers at early development sessions and to the public for research have been well-received, Zucker said.
Can the early negative reaction from Madison Avenue have a lingering effect, the way bad buzz can hurt a movie at the box office?
"I think it does matter because as buyers evaluate the Tuesday night lineup, they might not have the enthusiasm they could have had," Carroll said.
Stacey Lynn Koerner of Initiative Media, who advises advertisers on buys, said the chatter could have some effect on estimates of the show's potential ratings and value.
But she contended it will largely be business as usual: Time on "Father of the Pride," as with any new, untested show, will be packaged with other commercial blocks and isn't expected to go for top dollar.
Whatever the advertising community's perspective may be, the final decision is made by a larger and more influential group, Zucker maintained.
"At the end of the day, it's the viewers that matter," he said. "It's the viewers who ultimately make the decision."