NBC's 2011-12 schedule: Pragmatism, Donald Trump and one last year of 'Chuck'
Announcing NBC's schedule for the 2011-12 TV season, new network entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt tried to establish himself as a realist.
He acknowledged that getting the network out of the enormous hole it's in wouldn't happen overnight, and that therefore, "If we could do one or two things successfully, I would be thrilled." He acknowledged that "Chuck" is back for a final 13-episode season because he wanted to establish a scripted presence on Fridays but couldn't devote a lot of resources to it. He presented contingency plans for if the NFL is still locked out in the fall (though he believes they'll at most miss a few weeks) and if Donald Trump decides to run for president (though he'd much rather have him stay on "Celebrity Apprentice").
Of course, Greenblatt's predecessor Jeff Gaspin also presented himself as a realist, and he no longer has that job nor is NBC any closer to fixing the mistakes made by Jeff Zucker, Ben Silverman, et al. Pragmatism is nice - and no doubt necessary in this gig - but some hits would help.
Fienberg has the complete NBC schedule, and after the jump, I have night-by-night analysis of the schedule, along with some highlights of the conference call that Greenblatt just completed with reporters.
MONDAY: On the one hand, I respect Greenblatt for showing restraint with "The Voice" - the first out-of-the-box success NBC has had in years - and not trying to rush a second season onto the fall schedule. Greenblatt said one of his two big priorities for the season was making sure that show "is back and in as strong a format as possible so we can turn it into a multi-year juggernaut." So holding it for mid-season and making it into an event is smart, as is pairing it with the perhaps spiritually compatible "Smash," the Broadway behind-the-scenes drama from Steven Spielberg, "Chicago" producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and playwright Theresa Rebeck.
On the other hand, Greenblatt's plan for keeping the timeslot warm in the fall by turning "The Sing-Off" - which previously found success as a limited-run event in mid-winter - could be a case of NBC pressing its luck.
I'll obviously wait until I see a pilot for the '60s drama "The Playboy Club" before rendering judgment, but casting Eddie Cibrian in the lead doesn't fill me with a ton of faith. That show - which, like ABC's "Pan Am," is obviously an attempt to see if you can do "Mad Men" on a network - was the center of the press call's most amusing moment, when a reporter went line-by-line through the list of NBC's new shows and complained about how derivative they all were. Greenblatt dryly retorted, "We knew we wanted to be derivative this year, so that's why we picked up all these shows."
TUESDAY: If it ain't broke, don't fix it: "The Biggest Loser" isn't quite what it was at its peak, and "Parenthood" doesn't draw a huge overall audience, but "Loser" is still one of NBC's biggest hits and "Parenthood" more than holds its own in the young-adult demographic.
WEDNESDAY: And here we come to Greenblatt's second major priority: establishing a sitcom bloc on a night other than Thursday. Rather than move one of the Thursday shows to a new night to help launch a rookie, Greenblatt is instead going with a pair of newbies in "Up All Night," which at least has recognizable stars in Christina Applegate, Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph, while "Free Agents" (based on the UK series of the same name) has Hank Azaria in front of the camera and "Party Down" showrunner John Enbom running things.
"Harry's Law," which Greenblatt called "a self-starter," returns at 9, while "Law & Order: SVU" is back at 10. Mariska Hargitay just closed a deal to return for her 13th season, and Greenblatt believes there won't be "any impediment" to closing Chris Meloni's deal. Because Hargitay (who just adopted a baby) wants to dial back her workload, there's a plan to introduce a new female detective at mid-season, and Greenblatt said that Jennifer Love Hewitt is "somebody we've been circling" for the part.
(As for the defunct "Law & Order: Los Angeles," Greenblatt didn't sound like a fan of the chaotic way in which it got on the schedule last year, without a pilot, any actors cast, or even a script.)
THURSDAY: "Parks and Recreation," which did okay but not fantastic following "The Office" this spring, moves back to 8:30, which will form a creatively brilliant but possibly ratings-challenged double-feature with "Community" at 8. Greenblatt said his focus for the night is to develop some new hits, and the best way to do that is to follow "The Office," which is where the Whitney Cummings sitcom "Whitney" and the "Prime Suspect" remake with Maria Bello will go.
"We wanted stability in the first part of the night," he said. "The competition is just intense from 8 to 9. 'Community' holds its own there unlike anything I could have thought, and 'Parks' is a great show which I think in proximity to 'The Office' will do well there."
I'm hopeful Greenblatt's expectations for those shows in that time period are realistic. I still think that, if given more time, "Parks and Rec" could have done a little better at retaining "The Office" lead-in, but I can also respect NBC having several months worth of data saying that its audience is its audience, and why not move it in favor of something that might have more upside? (There's also the fact that Greenblatt gets very little credit for a show from the Silverman era, whereas if "Whitney" becomes a hit, that's mostly attributed to his leadership.)
Though it didn't come up on the conference call (because we needed time for multiple questions about Donald Trump's presidential campaign), Greenblatt said in at least one earlier interview on Sunday that "30 Rock" is being held for mid-season because of Tina Fey's pregnancy, and that the plan is to run all the season 6 episodes without interruption, in a timeslot TBD.
FRIDAY: And here we come to the final resting place of Charles Irving Bartowski and the rest of the "Chuck" gang. Again, the idea behind the 13-episode renewal - and Greenblatt told Ausiello that the circumstances under which the order might extend beyond 13 are basically impossible - was to help give NBC some kind of beachhead on Friday, and to give "Grimm" (a modern homicide cop investigates crimes tied to fairy tales) an established lead-in.
"I thought if we had a chance to transport an audience to Friday night, it would be something with a real following," Greenblatt suggested, using the same logic FOX execs did when they moved "Fringe" to that night this season.
Depending on where "Fringe" and "Supernatural" end up, there could be a major geek show pile-up at either 8 or 9, or in both hours. One thing I'll say to "Chuck" fans (and I'll go on at greater length in my review of the season 4 finale): tomorrow's episode sets up a status quo I cannot wait to see in the fall, and that will hopefully cure any "Chuck" fans of ambivalent feelings about this victory lap season.
SATURDAY: Nothing to see here. Repeats, as per usual.
SUNDAY: If there's football in the fall, then this is easy. And Greenblatt believes there will be football - or, rather, NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol believes there will be, and his conviction is good enough for Greenblatt.
If Ebersol's right that at worst they lose a few weeks' worth of games, Greenblatt said they have a contingency plan "to produce several high-quality live event, reality-type shows" to fill the time left by the lockout. If the lockout wipes out the season? Well, then America has big problems right along with NBC.
Greenblatt will also need a contingency plan at mid-season if Trump manages to convince himself that the idea of him running for president isn't a joke.
"If he decides to run for president and is unavailable to do the show," Greenblatt said, "we will bring the show back and there will be someone else sitting at the boardroom table. Who that is, I won't even entertain, because we believe Donald will be in the seat." When pressed on whether that meant he doesn't want Trump to run, Greenblatt simply said, "I think it's the right and privilege of every American-born citizen to run for the highest office in the land" and wished The Donald the best in whatever he chose to do.
Again, because certain members of the press just can't get enough of Trump, there wasn't time on the call to discuss Greenblatt's thoughts on any of the mid-season projects "Awake" (drama from "Lone Star" creator Kyle Killen, with Jason Isaacs as a man living a very different kind of double life from what James Wolk went through on the earlier show), "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea" (starring Laura Prepon as a young Chelsea Handler), "Bent" (romantic comedy with Amanda Peet and David Walton from "Perfect Couples") and "Best Friends Forever" (divorcee moves in with her best friend and the friend's new live-in boyfriend) that have yet to be scheduled. (Whereas the remake of John Grisham's "The Firm" at least has a timeslot, post-"Celebrity Apprentice," if not a cast or pilot, suggesting that Greenblatt's disapproval of the "Law & Order: LA" launch only goes so far.) Nor was there time to ask which of those might get either the "Love Bites" treatment (pushed until a Summer Burn-Off Theatre run in June) or "Friends with Benefits" treatment (not scheduled anywhere ever, most likely).
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org