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The once and future king of prime time?

May 15, 2006|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

NBC'S peacock may be ready to spread its plumage again.

The No. 1 network for much of the 1980s and '90s, home to such classic fare as "Cheers" and "Seinfeld," NBC spent the last few years as if trying to make itself dead to American viewers. There were bombs too numerous to tally, including "Emeril," "Whoopi" and "Father of the Pride," an expensive computer-generated cartoon featuring cute-looking animals who cracked so many vulgar sex jokes I began strategizing ways to keep the preview DVD out of my preschool daughter's hands. I finally hid it in the garbage can.

Then there were some genuinely good shows, like the dramas "Boomtown" and "Kingpin," that never clicked with viewers.

But as the network gets ready to announce its fall lineup in New York today, I'm betting NBC is poised for its best season in years, powered by smart new dramas -- one from "West Wing's" Aaron Sorkin, another from Oscar-winner Paul Haggis -- and the return of pro football.

Crazy? Maybe. This season things got so bad I nearly saved the term "long-suffering NBC" as a shortcut on my computer. The prime-time lineup seems glued to fourth place in the crucial 18-to-49 demographic, according to Nielsen Media Research. New dramas "Surface" and "E-Ring" earned spots on the crowded Wall of Shame in the Burbank offices, and standbys like "Law & Order" and "ER" are entering their dotage.

Since "Friends" went off the air in 2004, NBC has lost roughly half its core young-female audience on Thursday, often thought the most lucrative night of the week for TV advertising. Things are bad indeed when it takes Howie Mandel and a nighttime game show, "Deal or No Deal," to keep the roof from caving in.

The free-fall must have set executives' heads spinning. The revealing opening anecdote for Bill Carter's new book, "Desperate Networks," has Bob Wright, chairman and chief executive of NBC Universal, ringing up "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry to ask (somewhat pitifully) how come the monster hit wound up on ABC, not NBC.

Wright's been running the show at NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters for 20 years, long enough to know it's not what you didn't put on that matters. Each network misses out on this or that hit; so what? Who was Cherry in 2003? What's important is how and why your shows make it onto your schedule -- and in that regard, NBC has seemed bereft of either taste or strategy for roughly five years.

Until now.

This is a network showing signs of getting its act together. The 2006-07 season will be NBC's time to break from its painful recent past. Three reasons:

* 1. Oh, the drama.

NBC already has this year's most-coveted lineup of new one-hour series, most notably "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," a star-studded spoof of a late-night variety show very much like NBC's own "Saturday Night Live." The writer is Sorkin, the blazingly talented if erratic creator of "The West Wing," which on Sunday wrapped up seven seasons on NBC. Also on tap: "The Black Donnellys," a crime drama about Irish gangsters from Haggis, who directed the Oscar-winning "Crash."

Media buyers are taking notice. "The development they've had this year is better than the past couple of years combined," said Shari Anne Brill of New York-based Carat USA.

Could Sorkin's and the other shows tank? Sure; this is Hollywood. But NBC is at least trying to follow the dictum of its former chief Grant Tinker, known as the Man Who Saved NBC back in the '80s: "First be best, then be first."

* 2. Ready for some football?

For years, NBC's No. 1 position allowed it to blow off costly contracts for the NFL and other major sports. As NBC Entertainment chief Jeff Zucker told a trade magazine in 2003, "There is no question that professional sports are not worth the price tag for what they give you in prime-time television."

Well, that was then. This fall, NBC returns to the NFL fold with Sunday-night games, in a whopping six-year, $3.6-billion deal. Of course, there's no guarantee that ratings will top what CBS, Fox or even ESPN do with a game. But NBC has the right to press the NFL for strong match-ups and has the services of Al Michaels and John Madden, who worked together on ABC's "Monday Night Football" the last few seasons.

NBC has struggled mightily on Sundays recently, but football will give it instant sizzle with hard-to-reach young-adult men -- and a surprisingly large number of their wives and girlfriends, who just might be persuaded to look away from "Housewives" on ABC.

"The NFL demographics are among the best in sports," says consultant and former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson. "It allows you to promote your entire schedule for the week."

* 3. Reilly, really.

No one in Hollywood has endured more rumors about his job security lately than Kevin Reilly, NBC Entertainment president. Speculation has him holding the corporate short straw opposite his boss, Zucker, the onetime top programmer who has remained arrogant despite catastrophic losses.

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