We got trouble, right here at NBC, with a capital T and that rhymes with G, as in 'Gee, we're screwed!'”
Those words, set to a tune from the Broadway musical The Music Man, were belted out to the 16 million viewers of last week's Emmys in a song-and-dance number by host and NBC personality Conan O'Brien.
But while O'Brien's singing and dance moves were perfectly in step, NBC executives say the timing of his subject matter may have been a few beats behind. The network has a bounce in its step for the first time in years, thanks to the strong buzz surrounding its batch of new shows led by Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a runaway winner for best new show of the fall season in a new B&C poll of television critics.
After years of trying to lower expectations, NBC brass are exuding a new confidence they hope is the precursor to a desperately needed turnaround for the network, which plummeted from the golden era of “Must-See TV” after failing to replace established hits with new blood. NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, though, humbled by so many defeats in the past, isn't shying away from the buzz around his new shows.
“Hype is always a double-edged sword,” he says. “Hype followed by delivery is okay. Hype followed by fumbling is not. I'd feel a lot more nervous if I didn't think Studio 60 is going to deliver.”
Seeding a turnaround
And NBC Universal hopes he's right. It's crucial for the network to kick off the new season that begins this month with one or two hits to seed a turnaround and restore its reputation with viewers, advertisers and the Hollywood community. In recent seasons, ABC has revitalized itself, CBS dominated in households, and Fox flourished. All the while, NBC has taken a beating in both ratings and advertising revenues.
“As ABC learned with Lost and Desperate Housewives, it doesn't take too much to change not only ratings but, more importantly, the momentum of the network,” says John Rash, senior VP for media- buying agency Campbell Mithun. “A couple hits will not only make NBC more competitive this year but better position them to get earlier looks at better projects and enable success going forward.”
NBC's new self-assurance is attributable in large part to Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 script, which goes behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-type comedy show. The pilot has been widely praised, thanks to snappy dialogue evoking the gravitas of The West Wing combined with a star-studded ensemble cast featuring Matthew Perry (Friends) and Bradley Whitford (West Wing).
One uncertainty with Studio 60 is whether a show set behind the scenes of the television industry will play in the flyover states. With estimated costs soaring up to $3.1 million per episode, it's a big gamble. But NBC's Reilly won't tell Sorkin to keep things mainstream-friendly.
“I made it very clear to him that this is the show we are going to let them do,” Reilly says. “I don't feel any need to try and encourage it in any different direction.”
While Studio 60 is clearly NBC's best hope for a new hit, the network also hopes to find at least one other player in its rookie lineup. The new crop includes Tina Fey's comedy 30 Rock, which also goes behind the scenes of a TV show; high school football drama Friday Night Lights, based on a book and movie of the same name; and Heroes, a mystical drama about regular people gaining superpowers.
All have been well-received both by critics and Madison Avenue. Shari Anne Brill, VP/director of programming, for the Carat USA media agency in New York, calls this the best development slate NBC has had in several years.
“These shows will definitely outperform the ones they've replaced,” she says. “You don't turn around completely in one season, but they will have a reversal of misfortune.”
Besides Studio 60 and a few rookie hopefuls, the network has a handful of returning hits: game show Deal or No Deal and the comedy block of My Name is Earl and Emmy-winner The Office. Moreover, NBC hopes to exploit the promotional muscle of Sunday Night Football, which this fall kicks off the network's $600-per-year NFL deal. The network hopes enough fans will stick around to watch the entertainment product to justify such a large investment, something ABC struggled with on Monday nights before giving up football this year.
Launching a new show will be particularly tough with so few established hits to provide a safe harbor. In fact, NBC was so cautious with its new lineup that, after first announcing one schedule in May at its upfront presentation, it later released a revision after seeing the other networks' plans.
Other networks set agenda
Reilly's only apprehension over the season is fueled in part by the fact that, going into this season, NBC had to schedule around the hits on other networks, instead of putting its shows where it thought they would work best. “My biggest concern is that, given our competitive situation, we were forced to go with a schedule that was less than ideal,” he says. “[The other networks] are setting the agenda, and we are trying to program the best we can around that.”
Still, he's confident that NBC has the goods this fall, no matter what Conan O'Brien says. “He should use that material while he can,” Reilly says of O'Brien's NBC-chiding routine. “Because, hopefully, it won't be available for too much longer.”
How sure is he? “There is a momentum thing, and this is the year it will turn. I'm sure it will.”
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