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NBC hopes six new series and Jay Leno in prime time shakes things up

The network ranked No. 4 last season.

May 05, 2009|Maria Elena Fernandez

NBC continues to revel in rebelling.

On Monday, the fourth-ranked broadcast network announced to reporters and advertisers most of the programs that will be in its lineup next season. By doing so, for the second year in a row, NBC tried to get a head start on its competitors before their upfront presentations, which take place in Manhattan during the week of May 18.

But NBC will wait to unveil its actual schedule until that week, when the industry gathers to hype new shows and land billions of dollars worth of advertising commitments in advance. Because the network will abandon dramas in the 10 p.m. hour to air a nightly Jay Leno comedy show, leaving five fewer hours to program, elements of the schedule -- as well as the fate of some of its bubble shows, such as "Chuck" -- are still a mystery.

NBC has had another rough season. All of the new shows it launched in the fall failed, and three top executives were ousted as a result. The future of Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, who was hired two years ago, has been in question as well: Neither Silverman nor NBC has said whether they have extended his contract beyond its expiration in mid-June. (Sources close to the situation, however, believe that Silverman plans to stay on for one more year).

But on Monday, as he laid out NBC's plans for the next TV season, Silverman was exuberant, as he touted "The Jay Leno Show," the Winter Olympics and what he described as "intimate gatherings" NBC will have with advertisers over the next two weeks.

As competitors screen pilots and conduct focus groups, putting the finishing touches on their fall schedules, NBC executives will meet privately with advertisers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles to show them the network's six new series [see sidebar] and get feedback on possible schedule placement. NBC will then announce its lineup May 19 in an invitation-only comedy showcase event in Manhattan that will feature some of NBC's top comedic talent: Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Tina Fey.

"We're not interested in just screaming out to 5,000 people and then walking off to some VIP corridor. We're here to talk to you and speak to you and connect with our client base and allow them to ask questions in small settings," Silverman said in a phone interview Monday. "It's going to give us, obviously, maximum flexibility."

In addition to four new dramas and two new comedies, NBC renewed "Heroes," "Southland" and "Parks and Recreation." The network also will decide soon whether it will bring back "Chuck," "Law & Order," "Medium" and "My Name Is Earl."

Which brings up the question of the day: Where will all these shows fit?

For one thing, Silverman said a maximum of three new shows will premiere in the fall. But more important, by ordering so many scripted shows, NBC is hedging against the unknown: If Leno's new comedy hour doesn't work, the network will have plenty of series to air in its place. If the Leno show succeeds, and Silverman seems very confident it will, some of the new programs could air in 13-episode installments throughout the broadcast season so that they can share time slots, or over the summer.

NBC executives did speak in some broad strokes about the nightly lineups. "Heroes" will remain on Mondays and will be paired with a yet-to-be-determined new show. "The Biggest Loser" will anchor Tuesdays, though executives have not decided if the weight-loss competition will remain a two-hour show or be used to launch new programming in the 9 p.m. hour. "Law & Order: SVU," which has been renewed, will probably be scheduled on Wednesday nights with another drama. Thursdays will remain a comedy night. And two hours of scripted series will precede Leno on Fridays.

"Hopefully we will have to make tough choices between high-quality shows," Silverman said.

Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, said NBC will meet with the producers of the four undecided series to discuss renewal options that could include nontraditional episode orders. As series age, they become more costly -- a key factor in decisions made across the prime-time dial as the industry continues to struggle with the aftermath of the writers strike and the overall economic downturn.

"Once we get past the decision, [that] yes, we would pick up a show under certain circumstances, it's case by case," he said. "Some of our studio partners are eager to work with us to lower our costs for the show. Others are less eager."

Although "SVU" is a sure thing, its lead actors, Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni, who have been holding out for more money, are not. "Our offer is on the table and we hope they accept it," Graboff said. "The show's coming back with or without them."

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