NBC sked tackles hard 8

Entering full rebuild mode, NBC announced Monday a fall schedule that attempts to breathe some new life into its stagnant 8 p.m. hour.

Arguing that it’s hopeless to try to attract viewers later in the evening if they don’t first fix primetime’s first hour, Peacock execs have shuffled the time period on five of its seven nights.

That includes scheduling three reality entries in the slot: the return of “The Biggest Loser” to Tuesdays; the new Martha Stewart edition of “The Apprentice” to Wednesdays; and the Amy Grant-hosted feel-good entry “Three Wishes” on Friday.

“The key driver to putting this together was to attack that 8 p.m. hour,” said NBC Universal TV Group topper Jeff Zucker. “It’s really where we fell down this year. The ability to launch things at 9, having them self-start, was impossible.”

Losing laffers

Meanwhile, as revealed to advertisers Monday afternoon at Radio City Music Hall, net is playing it safe with laffers, scheduling just four comedies in fall (with three more on the bench for midseason) and keeping its Thursday night lineup intact. All told, net has ordered three new comedies and three new dramas for the 2005-06 season (Daily Variety, May 16).

The Thursday night stability surprised some given that next year reps the last chance for the Peacock to launch a show behind the retiring “Will & Grace” — and even NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly admitted that returnee “Joey” was a “mixed bag” this year creatively.

“There were sexier things we could have announced,” Reilly said. “But we’re in a rebuilding mode, and one of the things in the playbook is to try to hold steady on certain blocks that are working.”

As for the decision to hold back on comedy — saving “Scrubs” and newcomers “Thick and Thin” and “Four Kings” for later — Reilly said he’d still like eventually to expand the net’s presence (including a two-hour block on Tuesday) and that he doesn’t expect the other nets to load up on many laffers either.

“And if they do have more on the air, I won’t be envious,” he added, “because frankly, it’s not going to work. It didn’t work last year and it didn’t work five years ago.”

‘Fathom’ for ‘Fear’

NBC will take one of its biggest gambles on Mondays, pushing the still-strong “Fear Factor” to midseason in order to launch the sea creature-themed actioner “Fathom.”

“Taking ‘Fear Factor’ off the schedule was one of our more unconventional moves,” admitted NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly. “We think we can upgrade the audience with ‘Fathom’ and create some excitement.”

Reilly said “Fear Factor” could also return as ” ‘American Idol’ insurance.” Indeed, the Fox megahit played a big role in NBC’s decision to pay greater attention to the 8 p.m. hour, as it looked for shows that may be impacted less come the return of “Idol” in January.

“We were sitting there without an ‘Idol’ strategy and got clocked in January,” Reilly said.

Meanwhile, net’s other big gamble comes on Tuesday, where new laffer “My Name Is Earl” has been handed the tentpole 9 p.m. slot (following “The Biggest Loser”) and paired with critically acclaimed but low-rated “The Office.”

“There are no bolder bets on anyone’s schedule than these two comedies,” said Reilly, who added that “Earl” was the Peacock’s “highest-testing comedy in 15 years.”

“Scrubs,” meanwhile, already has a 24-episode order for next season; hiatus will also allow series star Zach Braff to star in the Weinstein Co. feature “Fast Track.”

‘Apprentice’ doubles up

NBC also took some by surprise in opting to schedule both editions of “The Apprentice” at the same time. But Reilly said the Wednesday Martha edition was significantly different from the original Donald version. “There’s a lot of curiosity about Martha in the wind right now,” he said. “We wanted to strike while the iron is hot.”

Other new shows include Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pentagon-themed entry “E-Ring,” which will air Wednesdays at 9 p.m., and the fertility clinic drama “Inconceivable,” which ends up Fridays at 10.

Just two of NBC’s six new scripted skeins are from sibling NBC Universal TV Studio — a sign that the nets have truly moved away from favoring inhouse productions, Zucker said. “One of the things you’ll see this week, the whole idea of vertical integration and complete reliance on inhouse studios is not a driving force for a lot of pickup decisions,” he said.

In addition to shows left for dead last fall (such as “Hawaii”), canceled skeins include “American Dreams,” “Committed,” “Medical Investigation,” “The Contender” and “Law & Order: Trial by Jury.”

“Last year we felt we could sustain four ‘Law & Orders,’ ” Reilly said, adding that this year the network needed that slot to try something different.

The execs still left a small door open for “Trial by Jury” and “Revelations” to return, such as in short-order episodes.

Zucker and Reilly said they were less than thrilled at the prospect of announcing their schedule before the other networks — a position the net used to relish while in first place. Now, the Peacock said it reserved the right to reshuffle its lineup depending on what its rivals announce.

“It’s a lot easier to go first as we have for the past decade when you are coming from a position of strength,” Zucker said. “We don’t have that red-hot show.”

Zucker opened the net’s upfront with a humorous jab at Reilly, who was shown starting his year sipping from his “No. 1 network executive” mug. After a season of flubs including “Hawaii,” “LAX” and “Father of the Pride,” mug changes to “network executive” and the beverage appears to be Wild Turkey.

Advertiser reaction was mixed to the NBC sked. Deutsch chief media director Peter Gardner said he doesn’t expect NBC to score a big turnaround like ABC did this past year. ” ‘Martha’ has to do really well early, they have to find a hit from the new shows, and ‘The Office’ has to do something,” he said. “They are operating from a position they’re not used to.”

Carat Americas national broadcast director Andy Donchin said he didn’t think the net was in “such a bad position.” “I think what ABC showed is all you need is for one or two shows to click and you’re back in the swing of things,” he said.

Separately, NBC announced a slate of specials for next season that includes a Jamie Foxx musical spec, as well as concert events headlined by Elton John and Jennifer Lopez.

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