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Upfront Scorecard: NBC Goes Light on Strategy, Big on Dolly Parton

NBC’s new series development didn’t look half-bad. It was everything else about its upfront presentation – which kicked off the broadcast networks’ big week on Monday morning – that didn’t appear ready for primetime. The network is understandably proud of its “Voice,” but was strangely mum on issues that mattered. That included making no mention of news, and providing scant rationale for its scheduling moves. Then again, any of that might have reduced the time allocated to trumpeting a TV movie deal with Dolly Parton.

Certainly, NBC had a lot to discuss, such as having practically eradicated comedy from its lineup in the fall, or its decision — touted in advance of the presentation — to offer more live programming. Then there’s the little matter of the cloud hovering over NBC News, whose absence was more conspicuous given the sizable chunk of time afforded to NBC Sports.

Instead, NBC appeared content to simply roll clips on its new shows, and hope star power — from the likes of Parton and Neil Patrick Harris — would win over what’s supposed to be a fairly sophisticated industry audience. Yes, some of the pilots exhibited promise, but at this time last year, so did “State of Affairs.” And while it might have played OK in the room, why bring the presentation to a screeching halt to let Parton take over, performing two songs and kibitzing with NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, who accompanied her on the piano?

Greenblatt pledged near the outset that the presentation would be shorter than last year, and admitted that the network had “some ups and downs this year.” After that, however, there was little more than a blur of program previews, with about the only obvious “That makes sense” move being to platform another drama, “Blindspot,” behind “The Voice.”

For all the talk in advance about NBC embracing live programming, there was virtually no mention of it — or the possible benefits in a DVR-mad world — on the stage. Harris enlivened the show in the service of plugging his new variety program, “Best Time Ever,” but it felt like a waste to have Jimmy Fallon come out and then say almost nothing — other than quipping “We’re all gonna miss you, buddy” to Greenblatt — before introducing a latenight clip package.

Those stylistic missteps, frankly, nearly obscured the potential in several of NBC’s new shows. “Blindspot” could be interesting; “Heroes Reborn” will have some built-in recognition and an “X-Men”-style vibe in its premise; and the medical drama “Heartbreaker” looks like, well, two out of three ain’t bad.

The biggest surprise, given NBC’s fall roster, was that several of the comedies looked pretty good, or at least generated some laughs in these cut-down versions. “People Are Talking” is an awful title, but the leads appeared to have solid chemistry. Ditto for “Crowded,” or new half-hours featuring Eva Longoria and America Ferrera.

Nobody needs a long song-and-dance about the merits of midseason. But after canceling a slew of comedies and launching a fall with only two of them, relegated to Friday nights, it would have made sense to at least try to explain why holding a bunch for midseason would give them any better chance to succeed than throwing another pair behind “The Voice” on Tuesdays. Similarly, NBC could have offered some explanation for why it hopes “The Blacklist” won’t remain a lonely island ratings-wise, as it has been since its move to Thursdays.

Upfront week is always a combination of salesmanship and showbiz. NBC delivered some of the latter, but the former was as scarce as laughs will be on the network after Labor Day.

Presentations are graded on a curve and subject to revision. Preliminary grade: C+.

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