Has the Peacock Network developed double vision? During November’s ratings sweeps, NBC will seek viewers with a programming stunt that’s either very wise or very foolish: The 1990 adventure Back to the Future Part III will air on Sunday, Nov. 17-and repeat just five nights later, on Friday, Nov. 22.
Sweeps scheduling gimmicks are common, but an instant movie rerun is a new one. However, NBC vice president Preston Beckman insists that there’s method in the network’s decision to become the (Michael J.) Fox network for a week. Future III, he notes, is one of several Universal films that will bypass pay- cable to air on NBC. ”We looked at how pay-cable launches blockbuster movies,” Beckman says. ”Generally, they premiere on a Saturday or Sunday night and then repeat in prime time the following week.” Ratings for those second showings, says Beckman, often fall only 20 percent from the premiere’s numbers; NBC would consider a comparable drop-off an enormous success. (The cable analogy extends only so far; NBC’s Future broadcasts will, of course, be replete with commercials.)
But there’s more behind the decision. NBC’s Friday lineup — Real Life With Jane Pauley, Exposé, Dear John, and Flesh ‘N Blood — is performing so anemically that even with a repeat movie, NBC has almost nothing to lose. ”I can’t deny that,” says Beckman. ”But that’s not what went into our thinking. I expect this to work, and we didn’t want to be the second or third network to try it.” And if programming alchemy can turn reruns into ratings, NBC will have discovered the year’s cheapest formula for success.