Network unveils details of upcoming season

NBC programming chief Ben Silverman hopes that offering viewers a large dose of feel-good and family-friendly fare will help free the Peacock from its ratings woes.

In his first upfront at-bat since landing in Burbank last summer, Silverman Wednesday laid out a supersized 52-week schedule outlining the net’s primetime plans through summer 2009.

Grids are heavy on blue-sky concepts and twists on familiar themes — Bible stories! desert island drama! Camelot! — and mark a distinct departure from the critic-friendly, sometimes somber fare NBC served up under former programming chief Kevin Reilly.

“We all deal with a cacophony of bad news,” Silverman said during a session with reporters that followed one of two confabs he had with advertisers at NBC’s 30 Rock headquarters on Wednesday. “We want to give an opportunity to our audience to have some fun and enjoy their lives watching our TV programs.”

There was also the promise of dramatically more first-run fare and fewer repeats.

“We are doing more original series than we’ve ever done before,” Silverman said, crediting his development team with a “profound” burst of creative energy. “We’re bringing more shows to market, we have more of a portfolio, we have more shows coming back than ever before.”

NBC will also seek to maximize its biggest programming assets. A long-rumored spinoff of “The Office” will bow in February, while “Saturday Night Live” will get a four-week, half-hour primetime run on Thursday nights in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

Despite his roots in unscripted TV, Silverman seems intent on limiting reality to just a few key timeslots. Net did not announce a single new reality show for the fall or winter— and even said it will save new hit “American Gladiators” for summer 2009.

There’s also a distinct international flavor to the Silverman sked, with shows imported from Blighty and Canada, and formats from Oz.

Still, advance expectations of radical new thinking notwithstanding, NBC’s sked is pretty conservative overall, with a number of aging warriors that not long ago seemed dead — “ER,” “Law & Order,” “Medium” and “The Apprentice” — all returning for at least one more go-round. (“ER” will wrap its run on the Peacock in February after 19 episodes).

Co-starring with Silverman’s sked Wednesday was the Peacock’s new upfront process. NBC announced its program plans six weeks earlier than in recent years and immediately began meeting with advertisers to discuss their reaction to the lineup and to hammer out marketing partnerships.

Silverman said the net had no choice but to get a head start on the process.

“Advertisers are demanding it,” he said. “They’re demanding that we come up with solutions that are deeper than 30-second spots. And you can’t do that if you announce shows in mid-May that come on two months later.”

He also described the coming year as a “perfect storm” for NBC, noting the net’s hefty menu of major events, including the Olympics, the Golden Globe Awards and the Super Bowl.

But what Silverman trumpeted as bold and innovative was met with skepticism by some rivals.

They questioned the net’s decision to schedule so many shows without so much as a frame of film shot. And they scoffed at the notion of a network selling a winter or summer sked before knowing how its fall lineup fares with viewers.

“They’re making grandiose statements that when you drill down start to feel like, ‘Huh?’,” said Fox scheduling and program planning chief Preston Beckman, who called NBC’s early announcement “risky” and said it will “probably not be the schedule they put on in the fall.”

“It’s not as innovative as they’re making it out to be,” Beckman added. “Everything they’re saying now, they could say in May. The difference is, they’re doing it with shows that don’t exist.”

Several buyers contacted Wednesday afternoon had yet to meet with NBC, since the net is spreading its Gotham powwows over three days. Those that had were guardedly upbeat.

“For ourselves and most of our clients, they accomplished what they wanted to,” said Henry Keeshan, a media buyer at PHD.

As for Silverman’s bid to restore the “family hour” at 8, Keeshan added, “I get what they’re trying to do. The idea is that the audience ages up as the night goes on. I just need to see what he means when he says ‘family.’”

Bill Cella, a buy-side and sell-side vet who now runs an eponymous firm, met with NBC execs earlier Wednesday. “It was nice to be in such a small group,” he said. “We had great dialogue and asked questions you wouldn’t want to ask in a bigger group.”

In terms of what the new structure might mean to NBC sales, he added, “The flow will be fine. The schedule is pretty static, so advertisers know a lot of what they’re going to get.”

Silverman outlined NBC’s new programming philosophy in terms of theme hours: family shows at 8, “blockbusters” at 9 and adult-themed dramas at 10.

Remarks echoed NBC Universal supremo Jeff Zucker’s reported mandate from two years ago, in which he said the network would only air reality shows at 8 p.m. (Zucker’s reps have claimed his comments were misinterpreted.)

NBC said the categories are meant to be broad and not limiting. What’s more, Silverman made it clear that all of the net’s scheduling moves are written in pencil.

“We’re constantly playing a three-dimensional chess game,” Silverman said.

If a series doesn’t turn out to be what NBC execs had hoped, or if a rival makes a certain strategic sked move, “We’re obviously going to need to be able to call an audible,” he said.

He also said NBC wouldn’t be rushed into airing shows simply because a schedule says they’re supposed to premiere.

“We will air no show before its time,” Silverman said. “Many of us and you have been fooled by the pilots. We’re spreading those dollars out across the series. Each step of the process we’re setting a high hurdle for ourselves.”

Among the other highlights of NBC’s slew of announcements:

  • While most of NBC’s new shows had been previously reported, Peacock surprised with its acquisition of “Merlin” (see chart).

    FremantleMedia is distributing the series, which is being produced by Elisabeth Murdoch’s Shine for the BBC. Murdoch recently acquired the Silverman-founded Reveille.

    BBC will air the show this fall, with NBC running it in the winter. It’s a reversal of the usual Blighty-U.S. programming pipeline.

  • As expected, NBC kept “Friday Night Lights” alive by striking a deal with an outside outlet (Daily Variety, Feb. 21). DirecTV will air the show’s third season starting in October; Peacock will air it in February.

  • NBC will use the post-Super Bowl berth on Feb. 1 to air a special episode of “The Office,” followed by the “Office” spinoff. Silverman said he’s keeping a tight lid on creative details about the spinoff.

    Peacock will once again air hourlong “Office” episodes in September. The next month, “The Office” will be paired with the tentatively titled “SNL Thursday Night Live,” a live half-hour of politically themed sketches geared to the election.

  • New drama “Kings” will begin life as a two-hour movie that will air in the fall as part of a marketing deal with an insurance company. That company will sponsor at least two pics for the Peacock.

  • “Heroes” will return Sept. 15 with a three-hour event — a clip-show followed by a two-hour episode. And to take advantage of the political conventions, “SNL” will bow its season early, on Sept. 13.

  • “Scrubs” will not return to NBC’s schedule for next season and is in the process of moving to ABC, assuming a deal can be hammered out.

  • Silverman took a random shot at rivals’ laffers. “Thursday night comedies on NBC make you laugh,” he said. “I’ve watched the other comedies on the other networks, and I’ve never laughed.”

  • NBC announced a slew of original webisodes tied to existing hits such as “Chuck,” and Silverman said the resolution of the WGA strike made such skeins possible.

  • No word yet on the fates of quizzers such as “The Singing Bee,” “1 vs. 100,” “Amnesia” or “My Dad is Better than Your Dad.”

Michael Schneider in Hollywood and Dade Hayes in New York contributed to this report.

Here’s a first look at NBC’s fall, winter and summer 2009 skeds:

NBC PRIMETIME SCHEDULE FOR FALL 2008 – 09

*New programs in UPPER CASE (with the exception of “ER”)

MONDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: “Chuck”
9 – 10 p.m.: “Heroes”
10 – 11 p.m.: “MY OWN WORST ENEMY”

TUESDAY

8 – 9:30 p.m. : “The Biggest Loser: Families”
9:30 – 10 p.m.: “KATH & KIM”
10 – 11 p.m.: “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”

WEDNESDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: “KNIGHT RIDER”
9 – 10 p.m.: “Deal or No Deal”
10 – 11 p.m.: “Lipstick Jungle”

THURSDAY

8 – 8:30 p.m. “My Name Is Earl”
8:30 – 9 p.m. “30 Rock”
9 – 9:30 p.m. “The Office”
9:30 – 10 p.m. “The Office”/ “SNL THURSDAY NIGHT LIVE”
10 – 11 p.m.: “ER”

FRIDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: “CRUSOE”
9 – 10 p.m.: “Deal or No Deal”
10 – 11 p.m.: “Life”

SATURDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: “Dateline NBC”
9 – 10 p.m.: “KNIGHT RIDER” (Encores)
10 – 11 p.m.: “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (Encores)

SUNDAY

7 – 8:20 p.m.: “Football Night in America”
8:20 – 11 p.m.: “NBC Sunday Night Football”

NBC PRIMETIME SCHEDULE FOR WINTER 2009

(*New programs in UPPER CASE (with the exception of “ER”)

MONDAY

8 – 9 p.m . “Chuck”
9 – 10 p.m.: “Heroes”
10 – 11 p.m.: “THE PHILANTHROPIST”

TUESDAY

8 – 9:30 p.m.The Biggest Loser: Couples
9:30 – 10 p.m. “KATH & KIM”
10 – 11 p.m.: “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”

WEDNESDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: “KNIGHT RIDER”
9 – 10 p.m.: “Deal or No Deal”
10 – 11 p.m.: “Law & Order”

THURSDAY

8 – 8:30 p.m. “My Name Is Earl”
8:30 – 9 p.m. “30 Rock”
9 – 9:30 p.m. “The Office”
9:30 – 10 p.m. “THE OFFICE SPINOFF”
10 – 11 p.m.: “ER”/”The Celebrity Apprentice”

FRIDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: “Deal or No Deal”
9 – 10 p.m.: “Friday Night Lights”
10 – 11 p.m.: “Life”

SATURDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: “Dateline NBC”
9 – 10 p.m.: “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (Encores)
10 – 11 p.m.: “Law & Order” (Encores)
SUNDAY

7 – 8 p.m. Specials/”Dateline NBC”
8 – 9 p.m.: Specials/”MERLIN”
9 – 10 p.m.: Specials/”Medium”
10 – 11 p.m.: Specials/”KINGS”

NBC PRIMETIME SCHEDULE FOR SUMMER 2009

(*New programs in UPPER CASE)

MONDAY (January)

8 – 9 p.m.: “American Gladiators”
9 – 10 p.m.: “AMERICA’S TOUGHEST JOBS”
10 – 11 p.m.: “Dateline NBC”

TUESDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: Most Outrageous Moments
9 – 10 p.m.: “America’s Got Talent”
10 – 11 p.m.: “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (Encores)

WEDNESDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: “SHARK TAGGERS”
9 – 10 p.m.: “America’s Got Talent” (Results Show)
10 – 11 p.m.: “Law & Order” (Encores)

THURSDAY

8 – 8:30 p.m. “The Office”
8:30 – 9 p.m. “THE OFFICE SPINOFF”
9 – 10 p.m.: “Last Comic Standing”
10 – 11 p.m.: “THE LISTENER”

FRIDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: “CHOPPING BLOCK”
9 – 11 p.m.: “Dateline NBC”

SATURDAY

8 – 9 p.m.: Drama Encores
9 – 10 p.m.: Drama Encores
10 – 11 p.m.: Drama Encores

SUNDAY

7 – 8 p.m.: “Dateline NBC”
8 – 9 p.m.: “Monk”
9 – 10 p.m.: “Nashville Star”
10 – 11 p.m.: “KINGS” (Encores)

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