NBC offers escape with new slate

Lineup heavy in fantasy, action series

With the economy going in the tank, NBC appears ready to bet that viewers are eager for a heavy dose of escapism — and as few repeats as possible.

Peacock programming chief Ben Silverman will unveil Wednesday his first schedule since taking over the network in June. While the net is keeping a tight lid on specifics, its decision to order projects straight to series, along with the condensed pilot season, makes it possible to outline some broad details of NBC’s strategy.

Many of the series in contention for the Peacock lineup boast a fantasy or action element, including one show just added to NBC’s 2008-09 roster: “Knight Rider,” the Doug Liman-produced actioner whose two-hour backdoor pilot snagged solid ratings in February. Project has been given an episodic order and has been mentioned as a contender for a Friday night timeslot.

What’s more, people familiar with NBC’s 2008-09 strategy said the net is looking to produce as many hours of original programming as possible next season. That will mean several series will share the same timeslot in some cases.

But it’s important to balance any guesses about NBC’s new sked with one important caveat: Even Peacock insiders say what will be revealed this week will be written in pencil. Execs have made it clear they’ll reserve the right to make changes in order to react to competitors’ moves or if promising scripts or pilots take a wrong creative turn.

“We’re selling advertisers platforms as opposed to specific shows,” said Silverman’s partner, NBC Entertainment co-chairman Marc Graboff.

He noted that nets frequently say one thing in May but then make major changes to their skeds over the summer. What’s important is not that, say, “Knight Rider” airs Fridays at 9 but that the Peacock delivers some sort of action-drama in that timeslot.

“Advertisers don’t care as much about a specific show as opposed to ‘Am I getting the kinds of eyeballs I paid for?’ ” Graboff added.

As a result, NBC plans to guarantee advertisers tonal consistency in timeslots.

“If we say we have a one-hour drama going into a timeslot, and it turns out it’s not up to snuff, we’ll put on another one-hour drama we have in the pipeline,” he said. “What we won’t do is put on a reality show.”

As for the tone of NBC’s programming, Graboff said blue-sky fare makes sense right now.

“People need to escape. Ben’s programming strategy is to find some shows where people can tune in and then mentally tune out. That’s his directive, and I think you’ll see that reflected in the programs.”

Graboff spoke to Daily Variety last week in an interview about the Peacock’s broader upfront strategy,before the net imposed a cone of silence designed to protect the details of Wednesday’s announcements to advertisers and the media.

Exec said he expects to “roll out between seven and 10 new shows,” including reality skeins. Graboff also hinted that NBC would announce some “special events” — i.e., miniseries or limited series designed to further limit repeats.

In addition to the just-ordered “Knight Rider,” escapist tag fits with many other projects NBC has already said it’s committed to airing this summer and next season.

Anthology skein “Fear Itself” will air on Thursdays this summer, while “Robinson Crusoe” is described as an “adrenaline-charged” update of the classic tale.

Peacock also has a deal in place with a Canadian network for “The Listener,” which revolves around a telepathic paramedic.

Another project on NBC’s hot list is “Kings,” which just landed Ian McShane as its star. Casting, plus the fact that NBC has ordered backup scripts, makes the show a logical bet to end up on Silverman’s sked grids Wednesday.

Execs are also keen on “My Own Worst Enemy,” a drama whose stock at NBC soared with the casting of Christian Slater in the lead. It’s a sort of “Jekyll & Hyde” tale about a suburban man who leads a double life as a spy.

NBC has also shot pilots for a legal drama from director Barry Sonnenfeld and the Brett Ratner-helmed “Blue Blood.” Scripts on agency hot lists include two Dick Wolf projects and a Dario Scardapane hour about a sexy former FBI agent that’s being produced by Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey.

On the comedy front, the Molly Shannon-Selma Blair half-hour “Kath & Kim” has already been ordered to series and seems a no-brainer for the net’s Thursday lineup.

Pilots shooting soon include the Conan O’Brien-produced “Man of Your Dreams” and the Steven Weber vehicle “Zip.”

As for the specific shape of the sked set to be revealed this week, Graboff hinted that NBC would be conservative in the fourth quarter.

“The backbone of our schedule will remain. We’re not going to completely shake up things,” he said.

Graboff did make it clear that volume would be a key part of NBC’s programming strategy.

“Repeats don’t work anymore, but we have a finite amount of money to spend,” he said. “We’re trying to do some things that are cheaper so that we can have more original programming.”

Shows returning to NBC next season include “ER,” “The Office,” “Chuck,” “Life,” “The Biggest Loser,” “American Gladiators,” “Deal or No Deal” and “My Name Is Earl.” Also a safe bet to be back: “Medium,” “30 Rock,” at least one “Law & Order” skein and “Friday Night Lights.” First-year drama “Lipstick Jungle” could also return.

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