Stewart talks up her 'Apprentice' at NBC upfront

NEW YORK — The line for NBC’s stage-setting “upfront” event Monday wound all the way around Radio City Music Hall, fostering the helpful impression that the network was about to put on a show that people desperately wanted to see.

The presentation itself, by contrast, brought to mind a popular maxim among criminal defense attorneys — namely: Acknowledge everything you know that the prosecution can prove, and then blame everything else on a dead guy.

NBC admitted that its fourth-place primetime finish this season in key demos was a disappointment, but proceeded to stress that the situation really isn’t so bad, using the term “upscale” so many times that the unfortunate few in the audience who earn less than $100,000 were doubtless tempted to upchuck.

Although full of the usual promotional razzle-dazzle, NBC was perhaps a bit too defensive in its posture, as NBC Universal TV Group chief Jeff Zucker merely stated the obvious by noting, “We did not have the season that we wanted to have.” At that point, he segued to the expected argument that other networks’ good news was good news for broadcasting in general.

Seemingly drawing a page from Don King’s rhetorical playbook, Zucker used a rhyming formula to discuss the net’s primetime strategy, before bringing out Martha Stewart, who prattled on interminably about why her version of “The Apprentice” will be distinctive from the flagship.

Still, given where ABC stood a year ago, Zucker and NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly (who plays an oily network exec as well as anyone in the current ranks, based on an amusing taped bit) weren’t exaggerating when they noted that NBC just needs one red-hot show to begin a turnaround.

Is that elusive Holy Grail to be found in the crop of newcomers? It’s hard to “Fathom,” based on what was shown, but hardly “Inconceivable” that one of them might grab Nielsen’s brass “E-Ring.”

Just the same, the NBC execs might want to begin using their “Three Wishes” now, unless they’re willing to risk winding up “The Biggest Loser.”

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