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Upfront Scorecard: NBC Bets on Stars, Families, Synergy – And Downplays Latenight

NBC’s upfront presentation lasted an hour and 45 minutes, but almost all of the important messages had to be decoded in a kind of subtext – some intended, others not and requiring a more trained eye to read.

The network opened by discussing what NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt called “a bit of a rollercoaster season for us” – which exhibits a gift for understatement – and touting the synergistic potential of the full slate of NBCUniversal networks, a strategy the company has given the name Symphony.

In other words, pay no attention to that struggling broadcast network in front of the curtain. It’s just a small part of a massive entertainment machine. Sounds great, except every other network presenting this week can point to its own array of assets, so demonstrating how finely tuned Symphony is will warrant a bit more proof.

After that, there were some discordant – or downright puzzling – notes.

Perhaps the most inexplicable involved latenight, where Greenblatt thanked Jay Leno for his 20 years of yeoman service, then discussed the plans to launch Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers as the network’s new latenight tandem coming out of the Winter Olympics in February.

Remarkably, none of the three hosts appeared live on stage. Not Leno to take a bow. Not Fallon or Meyers (who was in the audience and took a bow) to provide a few jokes and lighten up the morning. Greenblatt thanked the audience for “having a sense of humor about latenight,” but that’s more than NBC – after its protracted game of cat and mouse with the media about the shift – exhibited. And a taped Fallon-Leno duet, this time set to “Les Miserables,” felt a little tired after the “West Side Story” version.

Seriously, not one Conan joke? Lighten up, guys.

Granted, in the bigger scheme of things it’s not a big deal, except comics are one of the few ways to bring some showmanship to these presentations. And instead of showcasing its comedic stars, NBC looked as if it is was hiding them.

In terms of the network’s primetime development, the other unspoken messages were A) we’re going to rely very heavily on recognizable stars; and B) we would like to bring a family audience back to primetime. The latter has been shown to be an iffy approach, and the latter an extraordinarily difficult, thread-the-needle one in this fragmented day and age.

Even with big names returning to the lineup on Thursday night – including former occupants Sean Hayes and Michael J. Fox – it’s also hard to expect too much from a comedy block consisting of “Parks & Recreation” and three new sitcoms. A little more salesmanship on why that has the potential to work – other than the clips of the shows, which were so-so – certainly would have been advisable.

As for the new dramas, although the concept looks like another “Silence of the Lambs” rehash (which felt odd after “Hannibal”), “The Blacklist” showed potential thanks primarily to the prospect of seeing James Spader in that kind of serpentine-criminal role, just as Blair Underwood brought some sizzle to “Ironside” that the show otherwise appeared to lack. (NBC Entertainment Prez Jennifer Salke stressed the new version had nothing to do with the Raymond Burr one, which does sort of make you wonder why bother dredging up the name at all.)

Once again, NBC seems to be putting a lot of stock in the Olympics as a launching pad to its midseason/spring programming efforts, which requires a bit of willful amnesia about what a hit-miss proposition that has been in the past.

On the plus side, the Olympics will help bridge the gap between editions of “The Voice” during which NBC struggled so mightily this season. In addition, the Peacock is hardly the only network facing a “Prove it to me” challenge this week, so by Thursday, its wares might look a little better in the rear-view mirror.

Still, the message execs pushed about their momentum and progress – based on Monday’s preview – felt more hopeful than tangible. For a network that wound up axing “The New Normal,” that remains the old normal.

Preliminary grade: C+

(Upfront presentations are graded on a curve, so all evaluations are subject to revision at the end of the week.)

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