The new NBC regime laid out its plan Sunday to reverse the network’s long run of declining primetime ratings with six new series set for fall and another six waiting in the wings for midseason.
Adding a second comedy block on Wednesdays will be the first of a sweeping set of changes instituted by NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, who is saving some equally big swings for 2012, including the relaunch of unscripted series “The Voice” as a Monday lead-in for the most anticipated of the Peacock’s pilot crop, tuner-drama “Smash.”
High-profile bets for the fall include period drama “The Playboy Club,” which has nabbed the Monday 10 p.m. berth, and the Maria Bello starrer “Prime Suspect,” which will mark the return of drama programming to NBC’s Thursday 10 p.m. hour.
Tina Fey’s pregnancy has prompted the network to push “30 Rock” until January at the earliest for an uninterrupted run in a timeslot to be determined. The rest of NBC’s Thursday laffer lineup — “Community,” “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office” — will be back from 8-9:30 p.m., with new half-hour “Whitney” filling out the block as a lead-in for “Prime Suspect.” That’s a reversal from the three-hour comedy block the Peacock scheduled on the night in the latter half of this season.
After years of ratings decline in primetime for NBC, new NBC-Universal owner Comcast has cited orchestrating a turnaround for the net as a top priority, pledging earlier this month to pump an additional $200 million into programming for NBC.
NBC is in need of major surgery to staunch the bleeding. The Peacock is poised to end the season in fourth place once again, down about 15% from the 2009-10 campaign in both total viewers (averaging 7.1 million) and adults 18-49 (2.3 rating/7 share).
Half of the dozen new scripted series NBC ordered won’t roll out in the fall, when NBC faces the prospect of a primetime sked without perhaps its biggest piece: “Sunday Night Football,” which may get delayed or derailed by a potential strike. NBC is also undoubtedly banking on the Super Bowl (which the Peacock carries next year) as a launch platform for its midseason priorities.
In a conference call with reporters, Greenblatt wouldn’t disclose what would take the NFL’s place if need be but said he’ll be ready. “We have a whole plan for development with reality specials that we’ll put in those time periods if we have to,” he said.
NBC announced the schedule ahead of its upfront presentation Monday morning.
Two new comedies will kick off Wednesday: Christina Applegate-Will Arnett starrer “Up All Night” and “Free Agents,” followed by “Harry’s Law,” which moves from Mondays at 10 p.m., and then “Law and Order: SVU.”
Launching new comedies on a new night is an aggressive but expected move given that Thursday couldn’t possibly accommodate a comedy roster that will see six new series this season. Last year, “Parks” was held over for midseason, a move credited with boosting the show.
In addition to “Prime Suspect” and “Playboy,” the other new drama deployed in the fall will be supernatural-themed “Grimm,” getting a lead-in from the final 13-episode season of “Chuck” on Fridays at 8 p.m.
On Mondays, “The Playboy Club” moves into “Harry’s Law’s” old slot, with a two-hour lead-in from returning reality series “The Sing Off.”
The strong ratings performance of “The Voice” late in the current season led to speculation that NBC would rush it back for a second cycle in the fall. But it will still play a crucial role in midseason: serving as a lead-in for “Smash” on Mondays, a night Greenblatt is looking to remodel entirely.
“Monday was reconfigured for what we’re doing in the midseason, taking that whole new music competition-reality series through the whole year,” he said.
Held for midseason but still awaiting a time and place on the schedule are new drama “Awake” and new comedies “Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea,” “Best Friends Forever” and “Bent.”
Nets often hold back some of their most promising programming until midseason, which can be a more forgiving time for series launches than the fall, when dozens of new shows often struggle to get attention.
NBC has already scheduled its midseason on Sunday as well, returning “The Celebrity Apprentice” at 8 p.m. and new drama “The Firm” at 10.
“Firm,” inspired by the John Grisham novel, is a gamble for NBC in that the first episode has yet to be lensed. But industry insiders say it was attractive to the Peacock because it comes to the net for a modest license fee compared to other new dramas. The co-production of Canuck shingle Entertainment One, Sony Pictures TV and Paramount Pictures was originally commissioned by Sony to air on its international AXN channel.
The fate of “Celebrity Apprentice” has been a question mark for the network ever since talk of host Donald Trump mounting a bid for the White House started to pick up earlier this year. “If he decides to run for president and is unavailable to do show, we’ll do it and there will be someone else sitting at the head of the board-room table,” Greenblatt said. “Who that is we won’t really entertain because I’m hoping we’ll still have Donald back in the season.”
During the call, Greenblatt defended his decision to cancel “Law and Order: Los Angeles,” which he described as having been mishandled by the net before he arrived at the company. With just one show from the “L&O” franchise, “Law and Order: SVU,” remaining on NBC, he said there are no current conversations with creator Dick Wolf about reviving or reintroducing new editions, but he hadn’t ruled out the possibility either.
“I think this is probably where we’ll be, with the one franchise, but nothing’s impossible if the right idea comes in the door,” he said.
As for “SVU” itself, Greenblatt expressed confidence that thesp Christopher Meloni will soon close his deal to return for the 13th season, as his co-star, Mariska Hargitay, just signed her pact. But he confirmed that “SVU” is looking to add another lead detective to the series in light of the uncertainty over whether the stars will be back for a 14th season and mentioned that Jennifer Love Hewitt is being considered for the role, though no deal is done yet.
Greenblatt also confirmed that NBC News is at work on a new newsmagazine that could join the schedule later this season, an idea he brought to news division president Steve Capus earlier this year with “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams in mind for the role.
“The news division is in the process of developing that, and as soon as it’s ready, we’ll get it on the schedule and with enthusiasm,” he said, adding that no title or timeslot has been decided.
Here’s a rundown of NBC’s 2011-12 schedule:
NBC FALL 2011-12 SCHEDULE
*New programs in UPPER CASE
8-10 p.m. — “The Sing-Off”
10-11 p.m. — “THE PLAYBOY CLUB”
8-10 p.m. — “The Biggest Loser”
10-11 p.m. — “Parenthood”
8-8:30 p.m. — “UP ALL NIGHT”
8:30-9 p.m. — “FREE AGENTS”
9-10 p.m. — “Harry’s Law”
10-11 p.m. — “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”
8-8:30 p.m. — “Community”
8:30-9 p.m. — “Parks and Recreation”
9-9:30 p.m. — “The Office”
9:30-10 p.m. — “WHITNEY”
10-11 p.m. — “PRIME SUSPECT”
8-9 p.m. — “Chuck”
9-10 p.m. — “GRIMM”
10-11 p.m. — “Dateline NBC”
7- 8:15 p.m. — “Football Night in America”
8:15-11:30 p.m. — “NBC Sunday Night Football”
NBC 2012 MID-SEASON HIGHLIGHTS
*New programs in UPPER CASE
7-8 p.m. — “Dateline NBC”
8-10 p.m. — “The Celebrity Apprentice”
10-11 p.m. — “THE FIRM”
8-10 p.m. — “The Voice”
10-11 p.m. — “SMASH”