NBC: No longer Pea-cocky

  • Share
  • Read Later
"We stunk up the joint," said NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker at a noontime press conference previewing the network's fall schedule for reporters. He was referring to a particular night —the low-rated Tuesday slate —but why be particular? He could have been referring to just about any part of the once number-one-now-number-four network's performance for the 2004-05 season. Thursday, when Joey found that viewers would not be there for him in nearly the numbers in which they watched Friends. Sunday, when The Contender, the boxing reality show from Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice) proved to have a glass jaw. Pretty much any night that saw the debuts of a poor-performing class of new shows (LAX, Hawaii, Committed, Father of the Pride).

So at the upfronts, usually designed to put lipstick on the most porcine of network lineups, Zucker and new NBC programming chief Kevin Reilly, promised straight talk and candor —to a point. "We're not where you want us to be. We get it," Zucker told advertisers at NBC's Radio City Music Hall show, which in the happy-talk world of the upfronts is the equivalent of committing ritual suicide. (Last year, Zucker vowed to advertisers that the new Thursday night lineup, with Joey and The Apprentice, would get even higher ratings than the previous season's, which featured the last year of Friends.) Trying to find some good news, Zucker was forced to cite the competition's success as a selling point, saying that this had been a great season for network TV, as exemplified by NBC's success Medium —and, um, ABC's Desperate Housewives and Fox's House.

Of course, straight talk has its limits. Reilly cheerfully told reporters that NBC had spent the past year "spinning" them that there were no problems with Joey. But now, he assured us, he believed honestly and candidly that the show "wasn't broken." (In a "Weekend Update" skit at Radio City, Tina Fey was not so kind. The HDTV broadcast of Joey, she said, was so clear, "you could actually see Matt LeBlanc's panic.") The new schedule NBC was announcing would go a long way toward turning around the network's fortunes. But, then again, they might change it within weeks.

In an unusual move, Reilly and Zucker —whose network presented first at the upfronts —repeatedly stressed that they could switch things around depending on what the competition announced. Here's the schedule! We love it! Except we might not love it by the end of the week! But don't worry —we've got a whole stack of schedules where this one came from! (This despite the fact that the whole purpose of the upfront is to give advertisers a concrete schedule to pay to advertise on —but hey, it's not my money, so not my problem.)

NBC did announce some definite decisions. Kinda. American Dreams, The Contender, and Law and Order: Trial By Jury are canceled. (Zucker did tell reporters that Dick Wolf —the tremendously powerful producer of the Law and Order franchise —might figure out a way to bring back the series in some form. Then he immediately told us not to read anything definite into that statement. Except, I suppose, that it's a bad idea to tell your network's biggest producer that he is definitely, 100% for sure canceled.) Revelations is not returning, but then again it might, an oddly apt fate for a drama about the Second Coming.

In a bit of a surprise, NBC is keeping The Office, the mockumentary workplace sitcom that got low ratings but was the best new sitcom on any broadcast network last fall. Also returning will be critics' darling Scrubs —but not until later in the season, after star Zach Braff shoots a movie. Fear Factor, that offal-laden young-man magnet, is off the fall schedule, but will come back —presumably after one of those surefire hit shows is canceled. Next year is the last for Will & Grace, and The West Wing will probably be term-limited out at the end of next season.

And the new stuff? It's adventurous, says NBC. Except when it's comfort food. It's family friendly. Except when it's edgy. As always at the upfronts, NBC screened preview reels of its new shows, not entire pilots, so you can only guess —badly —at their quality.

The most interesting was a sitcom (NBC's only new one scheduled for fall), My Name Is Earl. Jason Lee plays a "redneck" —Reilly's word, and frankly an accurate one —petty thief who wins $100,000 in the lottery, gets hit by a car, has a spiritual experience involving Carson Daly and decides to make amends for every bad thing he's done. The feel is very Raising Arizona, and it's anyone's guess if red-state viewers will laugh or be offended, but at least NBC has made a sitcom about people who don't drink merlot in penthouses. (Whereas Four Kings, a midseason sitcom with Seth Green, sounds like a parody of a derivative NBC sitcom concept: four single young guys inherit a huge Manhattan apartment. Is one of them a paleontologist?)

There are three new dramas. Fathom is the most unusual, a sci-fi mystery about a bizarre life form that suddenly appears in the oceans. It's Lost, with fish. (From the press release: "Ever wonder what life would be like if a new form of sea life began to appear in locales all over the earth?" Yes! All the time!) Inconceivable, a comic-edged drama about a fertility clinic, looks like it was conceived through an egg donation from Grey's Anatomy. And in E-Ring, Jerry Bruckheimer (CSI) gives us a drama in the Pentagon, for your retired uncle who needs something to watch now that JAG is gone. In it, Dennis Hopper plays an officer. The '60s are officially over.

The network enters the "wish-fulfillment" reality-show arena (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) with Three Wishes, in which the network bestows life-changing gifts on people around the country. It's hosted by Christian-music star Amy Grant, just in case you forgot that George W. Bush won the election. The big reality announcement, though, was for the Martha Stewart edition of The Apprentice —no clips, but Martha showed up to give a stilted speech, in a beige pantsuit that showed no hint of an ankle bracelet. The show, we said, will "provide a candid look at my business practices," which I thought was what the trial was for.

Finally, there were the big upcoming specials: besides the Winter Olympics, there's a remake of The Poseidon Adventure, a sequel to earthquake thriller 10.5 and an eight-hour miniseries about 9/11.

That's right: the once-first-now-fourth-place network is staking its future on shows about... disasters. And you think you have to watch those fancy cable networks to see a refined sense of irony at work.