Buoyed by the return of Donald Trump's "reality" hit "The Apprentice," NBC looks poised to make some gutsy scheduling moves with new scripted series this fall.
At the network's annual presentation to advertisers today in New York, executives are expected to announce that "Father of the Pride," an ambitious, computer-generated animation series based on entertainers Siegfried & Roy's white tigers, will lead off NBC's oft-troubled Tuesday prime-time lineup for the 2004-05 season, according to network insiders, rival executives and agents.
Two other new shows up for the risky 8 p.m. slot are "HUB," an airport drama starring Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood that's cleared to land Wednesdays, and the sitcom "Joey," Matt LeBlanc's "Friends" spinoff, already expected in its predecessor's Thursday berth.
After a frenzy of last-minute preparation, the six major broadcast networks unveil their new schedules to Madison Avenue this week, hoping to scoop up high rates for advertising time that will be bought in bulk over the next few weeks.
This crucial period, called the "upfronts," is when about 80% of the networks' ad inventory is sold.
NBC goes first, followed by the WB and ABC (Tuesday), CBS (Wednesday) and Fox (Thursday).
NBC officially declined to comment on its scheduling plans, which could change by the time NBC Universal Television Group President Jeff Zucker formally unveils the schedule this afternoon.
Underscoring the highly competitive nature of these upfront presentations, CBS chose Sunday -- when much of the television press' attention was focusing on NBC's fall plans -- to confirm that its top-rated sitcom, "Everybody Loves Raymond," will return in the fall for a shortened final season of 16 episodes.
As for NBC, its 8 p.m. moves are surprising because TV schedulers traditionally try to book returning series in that slot, hoping they'll help drive viewership for new shows later in the night.
"Father of the Pride" represents a particular risk, since animation has a mixed record in prime time. Past efforts such as NBC's "God, the Devil and Bob," Fox's "The PJs" (which later aired on the WB) and UPN's "Game Over" failed. On the other hand, Fox's "The Simpsons" is one of the longest-running series in history.
However, NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly may have little choice. The departure this month of "Friends" and "Frasier" has left NBC with just two returning comedies for fall, "Will & Grace" and "Scrubs." And many of NBC's existing dramas -- such as the three "Law & Order" shows -- aren't considered suitable for the 8 p.m. slots, which tend to showcase sitcoms, reality series and light dramas.
"They have no anchors," one agent said of NBC, using the industry term for an established series that helps protect programs that come before and after it.
NBC has also picked up the new cop show "Hawaii" (at either 9 or 10 p.m. Mondays), a romantic sitcom called "Crazy for You" (8:30 p.m. Tuesdays) and an untitled medical mystery (9 p.m. Fridays).
"The Apprentice," a smash hit in its first cycle this year, is all but certain for 9 p.m. Thursdays, leading into "ER."
Sunday's "Dateline," "American Dreams," "Law & Order: SVU" and "Crossing Jordan" are expected to return. Also back: the dramas "Las Vegas" (Mondays), "The West Wing" (Wednesdays) and "Third Watch" (Fridays).
Missing in action are "Whoopi" and "Happy Family," two ratings-challenged sitcoms that debuted last fall.
For midseason, NBC will likely order "The Office," an Americanized version of the BBC America hit comedy. And a fourth version of "Law & Order" is also in the works.