Upfronts: Scripted shows on NBC - a reversal of fortune
In a bid to slash costs last year, the beleaguered network put a record-low seven hours of scripted programming on its weekly prime-time schedule. Nearly one-quarter of the lineup was devoted to an ill-fated and now-defunct 10 p.m. talk show with Jay Leno.
But after a bruising year of low ratings and bad headlines, NBC has raced back to traditional dramas and comedies with a lineup that executives in New York officially released on Sunday. The network is nearly doubling down on scripted formats, which will now occupy 12 hours a week (out of a total of 22) on the schedule. Among the eight new shows slated for fall are splashy action hours from star producers Jerry Bruckheimer and J.J. Abrams and a legal drama starring Jimmy Smits.
"This new schedule brings NBC back to basics with its commitment to quality scripted programming," Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment, said in a statement.
It’s a near-complete reversal from last year, when NBC insisted that the new economic model required slashing program costs by scheduling cheaper alternatives, such as Leno’s show.
"One thing we learned from this year: If you’re going to compete at 10 o’clock, you have to put your very best content on," Gaspin told reporters in a Sunday conference call. "There’s just too much competition from cable and DVRs."
The big question is whether the new lineup will deliver the kind of transformation NBC seeks. After much internal debate, executives opted against making a gutsy, attention-grabbing scheduling ploy, such as trying a comedy block on a new night. That’s a move that paid off handsomely last year for ABC on Wednesdays with its hit sitcom "Modern Family." NBC also seemed to shy away from picking the kind of risky, genre-expanding series that can pay big dividends when they work, such as ABC’s "Lost" or NBC’s now-canceled "Heroes."
Instead, NBC seems to be giving viewers familiar patterns and archetypes – and more of them. Although earlier this week NBC discarded the original "Law & Order" (executives said they’re discussing with executive producer Dick Wolf ways to give the original show a proper send-off), the crime franchise is hardly fading away. Programmers are bringing back "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and ordering up a new "Law & Order: Los Angeles." Both will air in a Wednesday block behind "Undercovers," a new spy drama from Abrams, who earlier produced the similarly themed "Alias" for ABC.
In fact, casual viewers may notice little change in the overall NBC schedule. Tuesday will keep two hours of "The Biggest Loser," the weight-loss competition that has performed decently if not spectacularly among young adults. And Sundays will remain devoted to NFL games throughout the fall, which has helped carry the network through some of its darkest days, ratings-wise.
NBC is making its boldest play on Mondays, where the fourth season of "Chuck" will lead in to a pair of (presumably expensive) action series. "The Event" promises a labyrinthine spy drama starring Jason Ritter. Its lead-out will be "Chase," a Bruckheimer thriller about U.S. marshals hunting dangerous fugitives. If CBS keeps "CSI: Miami" in its current slot, Bruckheimer would be competing against himself in the hour.
NBC has struggled for years to get traction on Mondays – remember "Surface" and "Trauma"? - but Gaspin and his team are confident that Sunday football will give the network the right promotional platform to tell viewers about the new Monday shows.
"It’s an opportunity to get viewers excited about two high-octane thrillers," Gaspin said in a conference call with reporters Sunday afternoon.
On Thursday, where NBC already has a successful comedy block, programmers are adding two new shows. At 9:30 p.m., "Outsourced" centers on the culture clash that results after a small American novelties firm sends some job functions to India. "Love Bites" is a romantic comedy hour from "Sex and the City" writer Cindy Chupack. "Parks & Recreation" will go on temporary hiatus until later in the season.
Executives opted not to launch a comedy on another night, a move some observers had predicted.
"We felt the audience was already used to coming to us Thursday for comedy," Gaspin said in an interview Sunday.
On Friday, NBC is betting that Smits, a star since his "L.A. Law" days more than two decades ago, can lure the available audience – a smaller and somewhat older cross-section of viewers than on other nights – back to network TV. His vehicle is "Outlaw," about a U.S. Supreme Court justice who quits his post to return to a law practice. NBC thinks the show can help it stay competitive on a difficult night.
"We even think we have a chance of getting some viewers for cable back to broadcast," Gaspin said.
Above all, executives said they’re looking forward to brighter prospects in the "upfront" ad market – where the bulk of commercial time is sold over the next few weeks – after an admittedly tough year for the network.
"The marketplace is much healthier than it was last year," Gaspin said.
Photo: Jeff Gaspin Credit: NBC Universal