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NBC's Reilly: Network's Ills To End

Comparing his network’s travails to “sweating like pigs trying to get out of a stiff headwind,” NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly proclaimed Friday that NBC’s “ill-fated three-hour tour is about to come to an end.”

While steering clear of ratings predictions and brushing off most questions about the past, except for “the tricky transition” to his regime that he refers to as “ancient history,” Reilly told a Television Critics Assn. panel that NBC will not finish next season “mired in fourth.”

“I think our fall is going to look pretty potent,” he says, adding later, “I don’t feel we have all our eggs in that basket. We have six viable (new) shows that all could break out.”

But Reilly acknowledges that NBC could opt to bring back Deal or No Deal for a third appearance each week if a new show fails, saying it would be used on a “stunt basis” two to three times per week.

“We showed a tremendous amount of restraint as networks go by not putting this on over the summer,” he says, noting that if NBC had, Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance would have been in a “far off” second place.

Having been criticized for running the game show perhaps too frequently in the spring, Reilly says he makes “no apologies” given the amount of hours American Idol occupies on Fox.

The network’s focus now is on creating series with long-term potential rather than one-off TV movies. Reilly says NBC will reevaluate whether it will remain in the business next spring. For now, it has only one movie currently on tap for this coming season and a couple miniseries and movies in development for spring.

NBC recently entered into a development pact with director Spike Lee, who Reilly says has two drama ideas—one an ensemble set in New Orleans.

Under questioning on other subjects, Reilly says NBC didn’t take personally Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip creator Aaron Sorkin’s pointed potshots in the pilot about Donald Trump and eating worms—a sordid referenced to Fear Factor. Sorkin, Reilly notes, has “earned” having a tremendous amount of creative freedom.

Turning to the summer, Reilly made “no apologies” for Windfall, the drama that started off strong and then slipped into a “respectable place.” He says the network is looking at airing another drama next summer.

Reilly says he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the networks, which have traditionally stuck with light fare in the summer, go to more “heavy” programming in the warm months, comparable to what the cable networks have.

In late night, Reilly says NBC wants to remain in business with Tonight show host Jay Leno after he turns over the reins to Conan O’Brien in 2009. NBC has first contractual rights to him over the next few years.

NBC has been heavily into putting its shows on iPods and other digital platforms to battle audience fragmentation, but Reilly says he still thinks it is relevant for networks to program their schedules with audience flow from one hour to the next in mind.

Reilly expresses doubts that viewers will “program their lives. They still want to see what is on.” Yet he says NBC is “not in denial” about fragmentation and is looking at new initiatives in “raising the way people relate” to its individual shows.

Shifting from new to old programming, Reilly acknowledged that Saturday Night Live had a weak ratings season but that there will be a “tightening of the cast” next season, making it a “new show for a new generation.”

Among the announcements:

  • NBC has picked up new cycles of the popular new reality series America’s Got Talent, which will return midseason at 8 p .m. Sundays after football ends, and Last Comic Standing, which will come back next June. Reilly says he expects it to become “an event for years to come.”
  • Madonna will perform in concert for NBC in November. The appearance, from her “Confessions” tour, will be filmed and edited to make it appropriate for TV, according to Reilly.
  • Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the creators of the BBC’s The Office, will write a script for NBC’s American version.
  • John Stamos will join the cast of ER.
  • Nissan will be the single sponsor for the premiere of Heroes.