Looking to maintain its demo lead for another season, NBC is offering a fall schedule with surprising moves and switcheroos on every night except Wednesday and Sunday.
“It’s a mix of trying to be aggressive and smart at the same time as we look ahead to the new season,” NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker said during a conference call with reporters Monday, shortly before he took the stage at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House to present the net’s fall sked to advertisers.
Zucker tipped his hat to the elephant in the middle of the Met, unspooling a short comedy film in acknowledgement that next year will be the final season of “Friends.”
In it, the Peacock leader appeared drunk and dazed in his underwear; shared a cameo with former NBC chief Warren Littlefield (who was attending a meeting of Network Presidents Who Lose Their No. 1 Comedy Anonymous); and was digitally inserted, a la “Forrest Gump,” into classic “Friends” scenes, including one in which Zucker appeared as Ugly Naked Guy.
With “Friends” airing only 18 episodes next season, Zucker said NBC will hold a nationwide phone and Web poll asking viewers to vote on their favorite episodes of the skein. Warner Bros.’ syndie arm has given permission for the Peacock to air the six winning segs in the weeks leading up to the “Friends” two-hour May finale. In exchange, WBTV sibling AOL will be heavily involved in the balloting process used to select the segs.
Overall, NBC’s presentation went off without a hitch, eschewing a parade of stars for longer comedy clips, a mercifully brief overview of the Peacock’s spin on the Nielsen standings and a bawdy musical intro from the cast of “Will & Grace.” Zucker also took the high road rhetorically, forgoing any real zingers against the competish.
‘SVU’ moves to Tuesday
NBC’s biggest scheduling move comes Tuesdays at 10 p.m., where “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” slides from Fridays to the 10 p.m. slot, displacing an edition of “Dateline NBC” (Daily Variety, May 12).
“That’s perhaps our most important move of the entire schedule,” Zucker said.
Also shifting are two returning frosh series: Crime drama “Boomtown,” which takes over “SVU’s” Friday 10 p.m. slot (moving from Sunday), and sitcom “Good Morning, Miami” (jumping from Thursdays to Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.).
The moves were necessary, Zucker said, to revamp NBC’s Tuesday lineup. The net has slumped on the night this season, hurting comedy staple “Frasier” in the process.
“Our biggest goal was to fix Tuesday night,” Zucker said. “When you see our schedule, we’ve made a lot of strides in doing that. Our other goal was bringing in new, strong comedies.”
Zucker blamed himself for “Frasier’s” ratings woes, conceding the net didn’t do a good job of giving the laffer any real support on the schedule. With “Whoopi” and “Happy Family” slotted from 8-9 p.m. Tuesday, Zucker thinks that will change next season, likely “Frasier’s” last.
“The show this year operated as an island on the entire night,” he said. “That wasn’t fair to this show. The new comedies in front of it from 8 to 9 are much stronger, and will really invigorate ‘Frasier.’ ”
The network opted to hold back another potential Tuesday comedy, “The Tracy Morgan Show,” for later in the fall, perhaps to fill the slot of any disappointing performer.
Zucker indicated “Tracy Morgan” eventually could be paired with “Whoopi.” Morgan is well known from his gig on “Saturday Night Live,” but he’s not as recognizable as most of the other names on NBC’s new star-studded lineup, who include John Larroquette, Christine Baranski, Rob Lowe, Alicia Silverstone, James Caan, Rena Sofer and Ryan O’Neal.
” ‘Tracy’ will be on the schedule; it just won’t be on the schedule in September,” Zucker said. “It’s about launching that show correctly and protecting it. We don’t want to throw it out there and not succeed.”
Too early for predictions
Mingling at NBC’s post-upfront bash, advertisers said it is too early to peg the sked’s clear winners and losers. Most positive reactions went to “Coupling” and “Happy Family”; “Whoopi” and “Las Vegas” drew less positive reactions.
Media buyers said the Peacock had good reason to preen over its fall schedule, and that the network is savvy about knowing what advertisers want in the present climate: stability.
“It’s a very solid schedule. NBC is guaranteed a strong year,” Initiative Media exec veep Tim Spengler said.
Zucker said he was bullish on this season’s crop of laffers — some of which will be groomed next season as potential heirs to “Friends” and “Frasier.”
“The four new comedies here are far funnier than anything we’ve put on in a while,” Zucker said, a tacit acknowledgement that NBC’s comedy development has been weak in recent years.
While moving “SVU” to Tuesday no doubt will boost NBC’s average on the night (and hurt ABC), move could give other nets the chance to take hold of Friday night. Though a critical fave, “Boomtown” has yet to prove itself a Nielsen contender.
Ready to break out
Zucker said he’s not worried.
“The show is poised for a major breakout in its second season,” Zucker said. “It goes into a time period that NBC has dominated with crime dramas for years.”
Peacock topper also likes the net’s chances in “Boomtown’s” old 10 p.m. Sunday slot, which now will be occupied by Rob Lowe starrer “The Lyon’s Den.” Assuming ABC returns “The Practice” to the slot, “We think Sundays at 10 is primed for a new legal drama,” he said.
Elsewhere during Zucker’s call with reporters and during his advertiser presentation:
- Not bringing back “Watching Ellie,” which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, was “the hardest decision on the entire schedule. It’s a good show, and Julia’s a huge star.” Also dead: “A.U.S.A.,” “Hidden Hills,” “In-Laws,” “Kingpin,” “Just Shoot Me” and “Mister Sterling.”
- Zucker still hopes to find a show for Heather Locklear, whose “Once Around the Park” didn’t make the cut. The net is working on redeveloping “Park” with a new script and concept; Locklear also is mulling guest appearances on “Good Morning, Miami.”
- While NBC’s comedy development is getting decent buzz, the net’s not yet ready to expand to a 10-comedy sked. “You need to be careful how many shows you launch and can correctly do,” Zucker said.
(Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)