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A dramatic change

Madison Avenue toasts new Peacock vision

NEW YORK — While welcoming NBC’s decision to cut back on its cookie-cutter comedies, Madison Avenue insiders are withholding judgment on whether the net’s new fall sked will do enough to reverse its recent ratings downturn.

As expected, the Peacock officially unveiled a 1999-2000 lineup Monday boasting five new dramas and just two new sitcoms — a departure from the net’s recent laugh-happy tendencies (Daily Variety, May 14).

It was the first such Peacock presentation for NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa and Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier. Sassa started his presentation by lavishing praise on his predecessor, Don Ohlmeyer, and his successor in the Entertainment prexy position, Ancier.

Sassa then walked through a sked which he said emphasizes the keywords “quality,” “smart” and “fun” as well as consistency. “Stability is the key to our schedule,” said Sassa, noting that NBC will lead off six of seven nights with returning programming next fall.

While previous NBC skeds seemed to be aimed at hurting the competish as much as helping the Peacock, Sassa seemed to signal a shift in thinking, arguing that network television is no longer a zero sum game in which there can be only one winner.

“We don’t have to hurt each other” to succeed, he said.

Nonetheless, NBC couldn’t help ribbing the competition a bit, serving up taped bits mocking the older-skew of CBS programming as repped by a hard-of-hearing granny and the downscale demos of some Fox shows via a beer-guzzling biker.

The Peacock poked fun at itself, too, bringing out “Late Night” host Conan O’Brien and canine sidekick Triumph the Insult Comic (voiced by Robert Smigel) to ask whose leg Kirstie Alley had to hump to get “Veronica’s Closet” renewed. The pooch also expressed sympathy for NBC affils attending the upfront, declaring that “you guys are getting it doggie style from NBC.”

While Ohlmeyer was extravagantly praised, ex-NBC Entertainment prexy Warren Littlefield took some jabs from NBC talent, including O’Brien, who quipped that the former topper was now “working on an off-Broadway production of ‘Conrad Bloom.’ ”

Ad buyers who attended the net’s upfront presentation at Lincoln Center wasted no time lauding the end of “must see” multiplicity.

“We’re very happy to see that they’re not churning out 10 more comedies that all look alike,” said Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP of broadcast research for TN Media, who also praised the Peacock for counterprogramming in many slots rather than directly taking on established competish.

Steve Grubbs, exec VP of national broadcast buying for BBDO, echoed the anti-yuks sentiment, arguing that advertisers are looking for “concepts that are different, off the beaten path. We don’t need to see any more formulaic sitcoms.”

One sked move that elicited some head-scratching, however, was NBC’s decision to put one of its most-anticipated new drama skiens, “Law & Order: SVU,” in the Mondays at 9 p.m. slot opposite Fox’s “Ally McBeal” and, most likely, WB’s “7th Heaven” spinoff “Safe Harbor.”

“Who do they think is going to watch it (at 9)?” asked Koerner. “All the men will be watching football, and all the women will be watching ‘Ally’ or ‘Safe Harbor.’ Unless they’re expecting to get an older crowd, I think it’s a curious choice.”

While understanding NBC’s desire to give local stations a solid news lead-in to their 11 p.m. newscasts, Koerner nonetheless believes 10 p.m. Monday would have been a much better slot for the new drama. NBC skedders countered that “Dateline” would have performed poorly among young adults at 9 p.m., thus weakening all of Monday.

While ad buyers seemed to think NBC took some steps in the right direction, some were skeptical that the net will be able to fully recover the ground lost this season.

Assuming CBS ekes out a win over NBC in homes in the next 10 days, “I don’t think NBC will be able to reclaim No. 1,” said Koerner, adding that it’s “too soon to tell” whether the net can hold onto first place with adults 18-49.

NBC series not returning next season include “Mad About You,” “NewsRadio,” “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “Caroline in the City,” “Working,” “Conrad Bloom,” “Encore! Encore!,” “Trinity,” “Everything’s Relative” and “Wind on Water.”