Lorne Michaels spent an hour Sept. 20 essentially apologizing to TV critics for a “failed” season of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” while tentatively expressing hope that a new director, six new cast members and 10 new writers can revive the aging franchise.

As Michaels and NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield offered a preview of the show’s 21st season, which begins Sept. 30, the new cast sat uncomfortably around them, offering few jokes or glimpses of the creative overhaul that Michaels promised in the spring.

Instead, Michaels repeatedly referred to the “absolutely savage” treatment endured last season from critics, then essentially admitted much of it was warranted. “At a time when people struggle to put a positive spin on things, I found it refreshing that we were an exception, even at our own network,” he said, referring to public criticism voiced by Littlefield and NBC West Coast prexy Don Ohlmeyer.

“It’s not very easy to stay on the cutting edge of comedic culture,” Littlefield noted.

Viewers seemed to notice.

Original airings of shows earned a season average of a 7.2 rating, 20 share, down from an 8.2/23 in 1993-94 and 9.2/26 in ’92-93. At its peak in 1979-80, “SNL” delivered a 13.5/39.

Michaels sought to diminish expectations for a quick comedic turnaround, claiming the show – even at its peak – “has always been uneven, has always been checkered.” With six of 11 cast members new, and most new to TV, “that will place us in some jeopardy,” Michaels said.

Among other changes, “SNL” gets a new director for the first time in its history, as Beth McCarthy, director of the canceled Jon Stewart talker, replaces the retiring Dave Wilson.

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