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TCA Press Tour: NBC vows to invest in programming -- and keep 'The Office' open

July 30, 2010 |  2:38 pm

Top NBC executives said they have learned their lesson and are trying to build a high-quality prime-time schedule to finally dig themselves out of their programming hole.

Their appearance Friday, at the Television Critics Assn. gathering in Beverly Hills, stood in stark contrast to the last time, in early January, when NBC met the media amid the upheaval surrounding the network's bungled attempt to shuffle out "Tonight Show" host Conan O'Brien to make room for the return of Jay Leno. NBC's disastrous experiment with Leno in prime time came after years of hollow pronouncements that NBC was leading the way in TV because it was "managing for margins," rather than ratings. 

Jeff Gaspin, NBC Universal Television Entertainment chairman, conceded that many of NBC's problems in recent seasons were self-inflicted.

"I think we made too many changes too quickly from a position of weakness -- so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy," Gaspin said. "The goal is to rebuild, to get stronger, and if we need to make changes at that point, then we can. But being in a position of weakness, that really jeopardized some of the decisions that we made and some of the moves that we made."

The expected takeover of the company by cable giant Comcast Corp., has given NBC an opportunity to reboot. This season, instead of relying on cost-cutting gimmicks, the network is rolling out numerous new scripted shows including "The Event," "Undercovers" and a new installment of the once-dominant franchise: "Law & Order: Los Angeles" (or, "LOLA," as the network and the producers fondly call it).

Starting over doesn't come cheap: NBC spent about $150 million developing new shows for the TV season that begins in two months.

"We have put a lot more money into development this year, we have picked up quite a few series and we are taking more shots certainly," Gaspin said. "We have a lot more stability at the network than we've had in quite some time."

That's good because more instability could be on the horizon when Steve Carell leaves, as expected, his starring role in "The Office" as his movie career shifts into full gear.

Angela Bromstad, president of NBC prime-time entertainment, said the network and producers of the popular Thursday night comedy had known for months that Carell would be leaving the show. Writers are preparing story lines to say goodbye to the clueless boss, Michael Scott, played by Carell, but the show nonetheless will go on. Bromstad said that though Carell is the indisputable star, the show has a strong ensemble cast, leaving it not dependent on any single cast member.

"Would we have ended 'ER' when George Clooney left? That would have been a mistake," Bromstad said.  "The Office," she said, would soldier on.  "Otherwise I could not go home and face my 14-year-old son."

-- Meg James

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