As the Peacock sets out on the path to ratings recovery, NBC Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly said Sunday the network had finally conquered the first step: denial.
Speaking to reporters at the TV Critics Assn. summer press tour, Reilly admitted that last season NBC had convinced itself things weren’t as bad as they seemed — until the net ended the year in fourth place among adults 18-49.
“There was denial,” he said, dumping the former NBC party line of “parity” among the Big Four. “That’s human nature. We all believed that we could do something. We had enormous, history-making hits going away. We needed to reseed them. It didn’t happen, and now we are where we are. (But) it’s like a weird monkey off our back, in a way.”
At the same time Reilly was admitting to the Peacock’s poor health, he also unveiled an ambitious slate of new midseason and fall 2006 projects designed to speed up the recovery process.
Among the highlights: a non- “Law & Order”-branded skein from Dick Wolf that’s been put on the fast track to production and a two-series deal for Frank Darabont. Reilly also has given cast-contingent pilot orders to four comedy projects as the net quickly looks to beef up its dwindling laugh reserve — even if it means reviving projects from other nets.
With NBC Universal TV topper Jeff Zucker ceding the stage for the first time, a solo Reilly put a brave face on the collapse, arguing that it led to a “kick in the ass that is going to get us back in the game.”
“Last season, for us, was kind of a colonic,” he said. “It wasn’t a lot of fun to go through at the time, but it’s going to be healthy in the long run. It literally took any residual sense of entitlement or complacency at our company and blew it out, so to speak.”
Reilly said he now felt “a thirst for creativity and a focus for getting NBC back on the leading edge. But the fact is we have some significant underlying challenges. … These are going to take time to fix.”
Asked about NBC’s big declines at the upfront advertiser marketplace, Reilly said he was encouraged by GE’s decision not to dramatically react to NBC’s drops. The exec said NBC planned no layoffs, although some positions may wind up empty through attrition, and the net may instill some hiring freezes.
“I’ve been very heartened by the fact that there has not been a knee-jerk reaction to our problems right now,” he said. “We’ve been on top for a long time. We’ve thrown off a lot of revenue for them over the last decade, and there’s an acknowledgement that this is a down cycle and we’re looking to tighten the bottom line.”
The exec also called recent rumors of his potential demise at the net a “character builder.”
“That stuff goes on,” Reilly said. “You expect it. … When you take these jobs, you feel under the gun. I can’t imagine more support than what I’ve been given by GE and NBC. I do feel we can get on it now. These are the facts. Let’s fix it.”
Zucker, who spoke to reporters later, flatly dismissed the idea that he’d be making any changes at the top of NBC Entertainment, adding Reilly has job security.
“He hasn’t asked for any reassurance and he doesn’t need any reassurance,” Zucker said. “Those are just the games people play in this town.”
Reilly and Zucker said the upfront drop — which they contend was lower than the widely reported $1 billion figure — were cushioned by the success of other NBC Universal TV divisions.
“The importance and beauty of the merger is borne out here,” Zucker said. “Bob Wright foresaw the importance of that. We need more resources than ever.”
That includes the marketing realm, as NBC plans to take a page out of the Alphabet marketing playbook. Peacock has bumped its fall promo budget by 30% and will focus the bulk of its efforts on three new shows: “The E-Ring,” “My Name Is Earl” and “Surface.”
NBC also has given Reilly more money to develop more projects now, rather than just for next season.
On the programming front, Reilly said he and Wolf met earlier this month to discuss the final fate of “Law & Order: Trial by Jury.” There had been some talk of continuing the series on cable, but Reilly said he and Wolf “both agreed” it was best to move forward.
Out of those discussions, Reilly and Wolf began to focus on the idea of constructing a series revolving around assistant district attorneys. “It’s an arena where the rose-colored glasses of the law come off quickly,” Reilly explained. Wolf had a writer in mind, and suggested using the elaborate “Trial by Jury” courtroom sets for the new project, rather than tearing them down as planned.
Reilly expects a script in six weeks and said it’s likely the project will quickly move to casting and production. Current plan is to not make the series part of the “L&O” brand.
Also on the drama front, Peacock’s deal with Darabont calls on him to create and write one drama himself, while supervising production on another hour.
NBC also formally announced its Irish mob pilot from scribe Paul Haggis (“Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash”), which now has the title “The Black Donnellys” (Daily Variety, June 28).
On the comedy side, Reilly said four half-hour projects have been given cast-contingent pilot orders and are in various stages of development, while two other already produced pilots remain hot:
- “Father of the McBrides,” from David Israel and Jim O’Doherty, revolves around a blue-collar family man with a rebellious teen daughter and a not-so-bright brother. NBC U Television Studios is producing.
- Reilly has picked up a former ABC project by longtime comedy scribe Mike Markowitz (“Becker,” “Duckman”) that’s being produced in conjunction with Brillstein-Grey.
- Tentatively titled “Bearaboo 2010,” from scribe Cheryl Holliday (“King of the Hill”), is set in a small town that has aspirations of hosting an upcoming Winter Olympics.
- A second script for “I Love Faron Hitchman,” ordered to pilot last season, is in the works.
- Matt Tarses-penned “Filmore Middle,” starring Justin Bartha, remains close to a series pickup, while Reilly remains high on the untitled David Guarascio-Moses Port comedy (formerly “Lies and the Wives We Tell Them To”).
Reilly said the summer orders are meant to send a signal to scribes that the Peacock is always looking for new material, no matter where it comes from. Indeed, immediately after the May upfronts, he told his development team to begin looking around town at projects that had been abandoned by other nets and studios with an eye on finding a diamond in the rough.
“We’re trying to chum the waters,” he said, adding he’s not too proud to pick up what others have passed on.
He also said he wants more writers to consider submitting spec scripts, knowing NBC will give such ideas equal weight with those projects developed inhouse. As for the heavy comedy development, Reilly said he’s hungry to return Thursday to a four-comedy lineup.
Elsewhere Sunday, Reilly announced fall reality skein “Three Wishes” will air Fridays at 9 p.m., swapping slots with “Dateline,” which will air at 8 p.m.
Peacock is sticking to a conventional premiere-week lineup, with all of its new fare and most of its returning skeins bowing the week of Sept. 19. The exceptions: “Biggest Loser” will return Sept. 13 with a 90-minute seg, while the 30-minute live “Will & Grace” event airs Sept. 29.
Looking ahead to November sweeps, “SNL: The ’80s” airs Nov. 13; a new take on “The Poseidon Adventure” is slated for Nov. 20; and “10.5: Apocalypse” will air Nov. 27 and 28 (9-11 p.m. both nights).
Hoping to mix things up on returning shows, Reilly said “Joey” will get a makeover, as Matt LeBlanc’s character finally lands a movie role and hits the bigtime; also, “The West Wing” may extend its election storyline deep into the season. As for midseason, Reilly said at least one show could bow by November, with another in January and the bulk launched on the back of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.
The Games should boost NBC’s season perf, but Zucker conceded that recovery co
uld take several years.
“Whether that means things get worse before they get better, we don’t know,” he said.