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NBC Chiefs Talk Schedule Stability, ‘Timeless’ Reversal, ‘Will & Grace’ Future, Dealmaking Dynamics

NBC’s volume of new series orders for the 2017-18 season has dropped considerably compared to the past few years. NBC has ordered four new dramas and two comedies for the coming campaign — and that’s just fine by NBC leaders.

“For us going into (planning) for this season we just knew that with all the shows beginning to stick in a big way we knew we were not having great needs,” NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt said Sunday on a conference call with reporters. “Two years ago we made 20 or 22 pilots. This year we made 12. It wasn’t like we looked at 10 pilots and said, ‘Oh my god, we’re in trouble. We backed into this level of development very strategically. We couldn’t be happier with our development.”

NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke added that NBC’s ratio of pilots to series orders was strong. “We did six drama pilots and picked up four. We knew going in we would probably only pick up four,” Salke said. The Peacock formally unveils its 2017-18 programming plans to advertisers on Monday as part of the NBCUniversal-wide presentation at Radio City Music Hall.

NBC is emphasizing stability in the fall with only two new dramas joining the schedule along with the revival of “Will & Grace.” The decline in new series orders coincided with renewals for some marginal performers including the freshman comedy “Great News” and sophomore drama “Blindspot.” The biggest surprise of the bunch, of course, was “Timeless,” the first-year fantasy drama that was canceled last Wednesday but un-canceled by Saturday morning.

The lower volume of new scripted series orders across the board for the Big Four networks is seen an indication of belt-tightening amid an uncertain forecast for the ad market this year. It’s also likely a response to the Peak TV dynamic of a talent pool stretched thin and concerns that good shows are getting lost in the tidal wave of programming, even those on the networks that remain TV’s biggest platform.

Greenblatt said NBC’s renewal decisions were driven by the quality of the shows and the effort to stretch its original programming budget across a year-round schedule.

“We picked up more returning shows because they’re good. We didn’t want to throw them out the door for new shows,” Greenblatt said. “It’s causing this great cascading effect of having so many more original hours and half-hours that can span a 52-week schedule.”

Greenblatt added that avoiding the fall premiere crunch has been good for business. “I correlate being the No. 1 network to launching fewer shows in the fall,” he said. “We’ll have a lot more shows deployed for midseason and summer because the fall is already so set.”

Greenblatt stressed that the summer schedule would have a higher than usual level of scripted series. “Summer is going to be a big deal for us,” he said. NBC also has big-ticket unscripted series in the works with Ellen DeGeneres (“Ellen’s Game of Games”), Neil Patrick Harris (“Genius Jr.”), Amy Poehler (“The Handmade Project”), and Chris Hardwick (“The Awesome Show”).

The decision to reverse course on “Timeless” came after Greenblatt and Salke saw the level of “Save This Show” outcry from fans after news of the cancellation of the time travel drama from Sony Pictures TV and showrunners Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke. The deal reached is for 10 episodes, with the show likely returning in spring or summer.

Salke joked that there was no great backstory to the decision. “We love the show, we just said let’s figure out a way to bring it back,” she said. “We proposed something, they accepted and 40 minutes later Shawn and Eric were tweeting about it,” she said.

The NBC execs were grilled about the reports from many quarters in the past two weeks that the network has been aggressive in seeking to trim license fees and gain ownership or backend participation in new and returning shows from outside studios. All of the new series NBC has ordered to date come from its Universal Television unit.

“The negotiation process for returning shows is always a complex one,” said Greenblatt. “We all saw the value of having more of these shows. We like these shows. We have tough negotiations in many places. Sony and (‘Blindspot’ producer) Warner Bros. are very pleased with having these shows come back.”

Greenblatt would not comment on specific deal points but stressed that business considerations do not trump creative decisions. He pointed to “This Is Us” as a prime example — the valuable hit hails from 20th Century Fox TV.

“We’re looking for the best shows to put on the schedule,” he said. “We put blinders on in the scheduling room. We just happened to pick up all of our new shows from Universal Television, which is simultaneously going through its own growth spurt.” To buttress his point, Greenblatt added: “What an idiot we would be to pass on a great show from an outside supplier.”

Among other topics raised during the 45-minute call:

“Will & Grace”: Greenblatt made it clear he hopes the revival can live on beyond the initial 12 episodes ordered, which will include an hourlong Christmas special. A lot will depend on the dynamic among cast members Eric McCormack, Debra Messing, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes. “It is my hope we would have more than just these 12,” Greenblatt said. “I think it’s possible if they love doing it again and it lands in a big way.”

“Great News”: The late midseason entry comedy from the “30 Rock” team of Tina Fey, Robert Carlock and Tracey Wigfield got a reprieve despite weak ratings to date. The renewal decision was a sign of Fey’s passion for the show, which is set in a TV newsroom, and NBC’s faith in the creative team. Fey plans to make a guest appearance or two next season, along with others from “30 Rock,” Greenblatt said. “The more of Tina Fey, the better,” he said.

“Chicago Justice”: The decision on the fate of the fourth installment of Dick Wolf’s “Chicago” franchise will come after Monday’s upfront presentation. “We’re still putting the pieces in place for post-Olympics and summer,” Greenblatt said.

“Trial and Error”: The midseason comedy still has a shot at returning. Negotiations are ongoing with Warner Bros. TV. “I hope we can have some good news about that in the near future,” Greenblatt said.

“Sackett Sisters”: The Fey-produced comedy pilot starring Casey Wilson, Bradley Whitford and Busy Philipps shouldn’t be counted out. “We definitely haven’t said no to that,” he said.

“Must-See TV” branding: Greenblatt confirmed that NBC will revive the promotional tagline that defined its powerhouse 1990s Thursday slate. No, he’s not worried about it coming across as too retro to viewers. ” ‘Must-See TV’ is a label that we’re really proud of,” he said. “For the younger audience that doesn’t know what it was, it won’t be a retread. For the older audience, I think it will be a welcome return.”

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