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How TV's No. 1 network courts Madison Avenue. Advertisers have far more clout than viewers in shaping a season

By Arthur Unger / May 20, 1987

New York

One day last week around 1,000 advertising executives met over breakfast with sales and programming heads of America's No. 1 commercial television network - NBC. And it was probably the most important day of the year for the network and its viewers - more important even than the premi`ere days coming in the fall. By the end of that day, the fate of many new shows had been decided by the reaction of the advertising community. The concepts or stars of some of the new series may even be changed before they air because of agency preferences and pressures.

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The third week of September, when many of the new series premi`ere, is, of course, the acid test for viewers. But viewers weren't represented at last week's meeting, even though it affects what millions will be watching next fall and winter.

The meeting, held at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue, began at 8:15 a.m. with a sumptuous meal served at the 10-person tables that crowded the floor. At 9:15 a screen behind the raised podium displayed the network's new slogan, ``Come Home to NBC,'' and the presentation began with Robert Blackmore, vice-president for sales, who told the audience that NBC was proud of its demographic dominance and upscale audiences. Then there was some filmed footage of ``Wheel of Fortune's'' Vanna White and ALF, the extraterrestrial star of his own series, kidding around, before Brandon Tartikoff, the charismatic president of NBC's entertainment group, was introduced.

Mr. Tartikoff, an executive in his 30s known by his first name to practically everybody on hand, proceeded to remind the guests that NBC had won its greatest number of Emmys ever last year and that its seven new series of last season had all lasted the full season. ``The Cosby Show'' and ``Family Ties'' had proved to be the two most-watched series ever, he said.

Since NBC had such a successful year, he announced, there would be only five new series in the fall - three dramas and two comedies - representing four hours of change for the new season. Except for Sunday, all 8 p.m. shows will return in their time slots. ``Family Ties,'' however, which has done phenomenally well following ``The Cosby Show'' on Thursday nights, will be moved to air opposite CBS's ``Murder, She Wrote'' on Sundays.

Tartikoff explained the NBC philosophy: ``building on series successes, remembering our roots, airing distinctive shows, showing the stablity of a winner.'' An agency executive was heard to murmur: ``In other words, playing it safe.''

Almost as if in response to that reaction, Tartikoff went on to say that this would be a ``fallow year for `high-concept.' You'll have to wait for next season to see a series about a bilingual flying dog.''

Then he proceeded to take one evening at a time, explaining why certain shows were being left alone and others moved into new positions. The five new shows were introduced with short segments from each, and some of the stars were presented.

Tartikoff then announced what he considers an innovation - ``the NBC designated-hitter concept.'' Some series now in development or limited runs, such as ``Beverly Hills Buntz,'' ``Mama's Boy,'' ``The Bronx Zoo,'' and ``The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,'' will be spotted in the schedule in varied time slots once a month. They will all be candidates for mid-season replacements.

When the presentation was over, the advertising people dashed across the street to a screening room, where they could see longer excerpts of the new shows. Some of the local press people covering the meeting walked over to NBC headquarters in Rockefeller Center, where a closed-circuit satellite press conference for out-of-town press was scheduled. We were asked not to ask questions since we already had had the advantage of attending the meeting.