NBC's 2010-11 schedule: Still paying the price for 'The Jay Leno Show'
A year ago, NBC proudly announced that it was reinventing the broadcast television model by giving Jay Leno a dirt-cheap primetime showcase five nights a week at 10. But the broadcast model (particularly the local network affiliate stations that are a part of it) wasn't much interested in being reinvented, and the colossal failure of "The Jay Leno Show" meant that NBC had to enter Upfront Week with a fall schedule that looks far more traditional - as well as one with more new shows than usual because of all the holes Jay left when he went back to "The Tonight Show."
The fall schedule NBC announced today features seven new series, including new shows at 10 on four of the five nights Leno briefly owned. (And the fifth, Tuesday, is occupied by "Parenthood," which only debuted a few months ago.)
"The thing that we learned from this year is that if you're going to compete at 10 o'clock, you have to put your best content on," said NBC CEO Jeff Gaspin, who took over the network after Leno-in-primetime had already started to go south. "There's too much competition from cable and from DVR's."
And counting midseason, NBC will unveil at least 13 new shows, including five comedies and seven dramas, from name-brand producers like JJ Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer and David E. Kelley. In the process, the network will say goodbye to several marginal ratings performers, most notably the original "Law & Order," which won't pass "Gunsmoke" to become the longest-running primetime drama ever, but may get some kind of closure as part of the new "Law & Order: LA" spin-off.
("Heroes" is also kaput, though there may be a two-hour wrap-up movie.)
The line-up - and my thoughts on it - night-by-night:
MONDAY: After a dramatic fan campaign and 11th-hour renewal last spring, "Chuck" got a relatively stress-free renewal and finds itself the veteran lead-off hitter in its familiar 8 o'clock timeslot, followed by "The Event," a conspiracy thriller starring Jason Ritter and Blair Underwood, and "Chase," a Jerry Bruckheimer drama about U.S. Marshals. (It's a profession that went from underrepresented on TV to arguably overrepresented, between this, "Justified" and "In Plain Sight.")
On the one hand, I agree with Fienberg that it would be nice to see Chuck air in a different timeslot and/or have a lead-in for once, and so flipping it and "The Event" around might not have been so terrible. On the other, based on the season three ratings for "Chuck" and the huge number of shows greenlit for next year, my guess is that NBC views next year as the end of the line for the Buy More gang, and considers it a schedule placeholder they don't have to heavily promote, since the "Chuck" audience appears to be the "Chuck" audience.
On the press call, Gaspin suggested "The Event" and "Chase" were big priorities for the network and would be heavily-promoted during football - though, of course, NBC has had football for years and it hasn't done much more than turn a show like "Chuck" into a cult success.
TUESDAY: The one status quo night: two hours of "Biggest Loser" at 8, followed by "Parenthood" at 10. Makes sense. "Loser" is one of NBC's few success stories in recent years, and "Parenthood" has done very well against the timeslot competition in the 18-49 demo this spring.
WEDNESDAY: "Undercovers," a light drama from J.J. Abrams about a pair of married spies (Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw), winds up in the same Wednesday at 8 timeslot where ABC premiered Abrams' "Lost" back in 2004. This is relatively unclaimed territory (none of the other networks have a ratings standout here), and a good spot for NBC's highest-profile pick-up.
It's followed by two hours of "Law & Order" spin-offs, with "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" at 9 (where it lost badly to "Criminal Minds" last fall) and the new, still-to-be-cast "Law & Order: LA" at 10.
On the "SVU" struggles during the Leno era, Gaspin said, "As you recall, the lead-in 'SVU' had" - the hospital drama "Mercy," which was canceled - "did not live up to expectations. Our hope is 'Undercovers' will give 'SVU' a better lead-in. The best way to launch the new 'Law & Order' franchise is behind 'SVU.' If we want a shot at the future with 'Law & Order: LA," this really was the best way to schedule the 2 shows."
Though "LOLA," as the new show is already being dubbed, doesn't yet have a produced pilot, or even a finished script, NBC entertainment president Angela Bromstad pointed out that none of the "L&O" spin-offs made pilots before they were ordered to series, and said it was still up in the air whether the new show would feature any characters from the mothership or its spin-offs, either as guest stars or even regulars.
THURSDAY: All four of NBC's current Thursday comedies were renewed, but only three of them will be back in the fall: "Community" at 8, "30 Rock" at 8:30 and "The Office" at 9.
"Parks and Recreation" (which happens to be NBC's best comedy, and probably the best comedy on TV, period) didn't take a production hiatus between seasons 2 and 3 so that the series could come back in the fall even with star Amy Poehler's pregnancy...
...and is being rewarded for that dedication by being held for mid-season.
"That was one of the toughest decisions we had to make," said Gaspin. "Ultimately, we wanted to get new comedy on our schedule... What we will do is put five or six comedies in the two-hour block, and we expect that 'Parks and Recreation' will be back on the schedule on Thursday. It's not in any way an indiciation that we don't think it's as good as the other comedies. We think it's a terrific comedy, and we did put two new castmembers" - Adam Scott and Rob Lowe - "in as a way to give the audience a new entry point. But we have seen time and time again on cable and see you can wait as much as a year and actually create more anticipation for a series and not lose momentum."
(Of course, those cable shows that disappear for as much as a year or more are already established hits, whereas "Parks and Rec" is still hanging on, in part because it's the only one of NBC's non-"Office" comedies to never air after "The Office." Gaspin suggested 9:30 was very much in play as a timeslot for when it returns.)
Instead of the Indiana heroes of "Parks and Rec," the 9:30 timeslot will go to India with "Outsourced," a new comedy about a Mid-Western executive adjusting when his job is moved halfway across the world. It's followed at 10 by "Love Bites," a romantic anthology from "Sex and the City" alum Cindy Chupack, and starring Becki Newton from "Ugly Betty" and Jordana Spiro from "My Boys."
"The Office" remains NBC's only real success on the night, and with Steve Carell talking about leaving after this season, the network needs something else to start working.
"Steve is incredibly important to the show," said Bromstad, "and we hope we can keep him for a long time. Whether or not he stays with 'The Office,' it's a big priority for us to develop a new hit."
FRIDAY: The Lisa Kudrow-produced "Who Do You Think You Are?," in which celebrities look for the roots of their family trees, was a solid performer this spring, and will be back at 8 in the fall, followed by the umpteenth year of "Dateline NBC."
At 10, the timeslot that this past fall belonged to Jay Leno will belong to... Conan O'Brien. Or, at least, Conan O'Brien, producer. Coco's company is responsible for "Outlaw," starring Jimmy Smits as a Supreme Court justice who quits the bench to go back to representing the little guy.
A reporter on the call joked, "I guess Conan's going to be at your upfront, after all" and asked if they had spoken with him directly.
"I haven't talked to Conan recently," Bromstad deadpanned, "but I speak to the head of development for his company all the time, and they're thrilled with the pickup."
SATURDAY: Lather, rinse, repeats. NBC (like most of the other networks) will give up on Fridays before it gets back into original programming on Saturdays.
SUNDAY: Football in the fall, and "Dateline," "Minute to Win It" and "Celebrity Apprentice" in the spring.
Other comedies yet to be scheduled include "Perfect Couples" (co-starring Olivia Munn from "Attack of the Show" and Kyle Howard, also of "My Boys," which has me thinking that show's dead after its next season airs this summer); "The Paul Reiser Show," a "Curb"-esque show with the "Mad About You" star playing himself; and"Friends with Benefits" starring Ryan Hansen from "Party Down" (another cable show losing too many castmembers to network series for me to feel good about its future).
The remaining dramas: "The Cape" with David Lyons (an "ER" alum whose "Day One" was originally a midseason series for this past year, then a miniseries, and now something Bromstad says will likely never air) as a cop-turned-superhero and "Harry's Law," a David E. Kelley legal show with Kathy Bates (no doubt playing a wacky attorney who loves to talk about why she became a lawyer).
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com