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

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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.

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.

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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.

I saw Tartikoff in the makeup room outside Studio 6A being prepared for the cameras. Then I joined about 10 other reporters before a monitor on which he appeared, gave a quick rundown of the new season, and then answered questions from television columnists from all over the United States. The questions came from Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, and Washington.

Anne Hodges, president of the Television Critics Association, accused Tartikoff of sloughing off objections to the morality of the concept behind ``Who's Dad?'' a series with a questionable premise about a 12-year-old girl who attempts to determine which of two men who loved her deceased mother is actually her father.

When asked how much influence Robert Wright, president of General Electric, the parent company of NBC, exerted in the programming decisions, Tartikoff responded: ``All he said was: If I put on new shows, make sure they are shows you can't find anywhere else on TV.''

The press conference ended at 1:30 p.m. Immediately afterward, Tartikoff and the rest of the NBC presentation crew took the show on the road. They flew off to Chicago, where they were scheduled to do the same thing all over again for Midwestern ad agencies.

CBS and ABC have released news about their new series but won't make their presentations to the New York advertising community until May 27 and 28.

These advance presentations come at a time when it is still possible to make changes in concept and execution, since most shows are just now going into production.

However, organizations representing TV viewers get no such advance opportunity for a say in the season, except by responding to reports in the press. But viewers will have the last word - when they make their opinions known by controlling their TV dials come September.

`Our goal is to have people watch the commercials'

Just after NBC's fall preview for potential advertisers, Mel Conner told the Monitor that this presentation represents ``one of the most important days for NBC's new season.... Many shows will live or die or be changed on the basis of the reaction of the advertising community. Mr. Conner is director of TV network operations at a leading international ad agency, DFS Dorland Worldwide, which rates all the new shows in a published survey that is recognized throughout the advertising industry.

``These presentations are important to the advertising agencies,'' Conner continued, ``because they give us an indication of the philosophy that shaped the program decisions. NBC's philosophy this year seems to be: Play it safe, and just develop something new for each problem time-period. ABC's philosophy this year is just: Get something different on the air. CBS seems to be focusing on winning more of those 8 p.m. time periods, which key the whole evening.''

Conner likes NBC's ``designated hitter concept,'' because it gives new spring shows like ``The Bronx Zoo'' - which he thinks is terrific - a chance to prove themselves. However, he is not happy about the switch of ``Family Ties'' to air opposite ``Murder, She Wrote'' on Sunday nights: ``Mainly we don't like it because we hate to see big shows face off against each other. It means that VCR use will jump. And when people go back to watch a show they tape, they often speed past the commercials. Our goal is not the same as NBC's. Their goal is to win the night. Our goal is to have people watch the commercials.'' -30-{et

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