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Troubled NBC calls on exec Angela Bromstad to revive prime time

The network passed over Bromstad two years ago. Now it's counting on her to find hits, starting tonight.

April 09, 2009|Meg James

Angela Bromstad is NBC's survivor.

Two years ago, Bromstad, then president of NBC's television production studio, made what was seen as a suicidal career move. After losing a power struggle over control of the network's programming, she walked away from her job.

Fast-forward to last November. NBC's fall prime-time schedule had collapsed, Bromstad's nemesis at the network was long gone, another rival was about to be shown the door, and NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker desperately needed to restore order to NBC after two tumultuous seasons with Ben Silverman in charge.

In a twist worthy of a TV movie, Zucker, who had sent Bromstad to London in 2007 to ramp up international production operations, called his loyal lieutenant back to Los Angeles and handed her the job she had wanted two years earlier. In January, she became NBC's chief programmer of dramas and comedies -- the fourth executive to hold the post in 19 months.

Bromstad parachuted in during television's busiest time of the year -- pilot season -- when network executives pick new comedies and dramas for the coming fall schedule. Days after arriving, she ordered 11 pilots. "I didn't have a lot of time to sit around and ponder things," she said.

Only a few weeks earlier NBC had laid off dozens of veteran program executives in a restructuring that combined the network and production studio program development teams into one unit, which Bromstad, 47, now manages.

The pressure is on to revive the fourth-place network as it heads into the all-important advertising selling season. Bromstad's first big test comes tonight, when NBC premieres two new programs: "Parks and Recreation," a sitcom that borrows a page from "The Office" and stars "Saturday Night Live" alum Amy Poehler; and "Southland," a gritty police drama about L.A.

One of Bromstad's early calls was to put "Southland" in the marquee 10 p.m. Thursday slot, and shuffle to Sunday night the lavish drama "Kings," starring Ian McShane. "Kings," which costs about $3 million an episode to produce, had been championed by Bromstad's predecessors. But Bromstad had doubts that a drama about a modern-day king who struggles with moral dilemmas and family conflicts would work on network television.

"The objective now is to broaden the network out, to give it a wider appeal," she said.

NBC hasn't fielded a breakout hit since "Heroes" in 2006, and that once-hot drama is cooling. The network's two quirky sitcoms, "The Office" and "30 Rock," have won critical acclaim but not enough viewers to satisfy advertisers.

And in its biggest gamble, NBC is transplanting late-night talk show king Jay Leno to 10 p.m. Bromstad said she initially was unsure about the Leno move because NBC had long used that time slot to showcase its best dramas.

Bromstad said she was now comfortable with Leno in prime time because the show would provide an alternative to the typical dramas and local newscasts that dominate the hour on other channels. It also reduces her burden of developing new shows because the network has five fewer hours per week of prime time to fill.

There is no shortage of problems for Bromstad and her peers in the television industry.

"She inherited a tough situation," said producer Dick Wolf, creator of the "Law & Order" franchise, which has helped NBC weather the hard times. "The TV business is going through enormous upheaval, and NBC obviously hasn't been immune from those problems." He said Bromstad was "not a screamer" but a "professional . . . who leaves people alone so they can do their jobs."

Since returning to Los Angeles, Bromstad has kept a low profile. Her style is more reserved than that of her attention-grabbing predecessors, including Silverman, who remains co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, or even Zucker, who ran NBC Entertainment several years ago.

"I have always tried to fly a bit below the radar," she said. "I am a bit superstitious about it. The higher your profile the more of a target you sometimes become."

That might be a lesson that NBC and Silverman learned the hard way. The network, and Silverman, refuse to say whether Silverman is staying on beyond mid-June when his two-year contract expires. People close to the situation say they believe Silverman has negotiated a one-year extension.

NBC executives privately concede that the last couple of years have been a programming disaster. The writers strike interrupted one development season, and Silverman, despite being a successful TV producer, did not demonstrate the skills needed to manage a network. Nor did any of the shows he developed score with audiences. This season's "My Own Worst Enemy," "Crusoe" and "Knight Rider" were prime-time car wrecks.

For his part, Silverman said he welcomed the changes.

Bromstad "is a creative development executive and I'm a creative business executive. It's a much different skill set," Silverman said. "Her job is running scripted programming and my job is a thousand different things. She's awesome."

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