Upfronts 2014: NBC tries to build on its first-place finish by leaning on 'The Blacklist'
A very strange thing happened to NBC this year: for the first time in a decade — a period during which it has mostly been a laughingstock — it will finish a season in first place among the adults 18-49 demographic that advertisers care about most. Ordinarily, a network that wins a season can play things conservatively for the next year, but NBC's success isn't entirely replicable. Yes, the network's buoyed by regular, season-long programming like "The Voice" and hit freshman drama "The Blacklist," but a lot of credit for that win comes from "Sunday Night Football," which always goes away in January (leaving the network's ratings on that night a shambles), and some from the Winter Olympics, which won't be back for another four years.
So the schedule that NBC announced for next season seems on the one hand a fairly stable one. "The Blacklist," for instance, will stay in a protected timeslot after "The Voice" for half a season, and get an airing after next year's Super Bowl for extra support, before being sent off to try to resurrect the network's ruined Thursday night lineup. But on the other hand, NBC ordered a dozen new scripted shows for next season (five dramas, seven comedies), and only five of those have spots on the fall schedule, and only two more are already marked for midseason, leaving a whole lot of new product — not to mention currently-unscheduled returning shows like "Parks and Recreation" and "Hannibal," and several new miniseries (one of them the ill-advised "Heroes: Reborn") — waiting to find homes.
NBC's press release announcing their plans for next season says the goal is to schedule original shows year-round, but it's hard to say how that will work until we know the specifics of that plan, particularly involving Sundays after football and Thursdays in the event that new comedies "Bad Judge" and "A to Z" actually do well in the hour that's earmarked for "The Blacklist."
But let's look at what we know, night-by-night:
SUNDAY: In the fall, this is easy: the NFL. All problems solved. For the early part of 2014? Who's to say? We know that miniseries "A.D.," the 12-part follow-up to "The Bible" from Mark Burnett, will debut on Easter Sunday, but beyond that, some kinds of rookies will have to be sacrificed there, in the same way that the canceled "Believe" and "Crisis" were this season.
MONDAY: Again, easy-peasie. "The Voice" at 8, "The Blacklist" at 10 in the fall, and "State of Affairs" (a cross between "Scandal" and "Homeland" starring Katherine Heigl as a CIA analyst who advises the president (Alfre Woodard) at mid-season. NBC will also have a harder problem filling the gap between "Voice" seasons with no Olympics this time out.
TUESDAY: More of sticking with what worked, basically, with "The Voice" at 8 and "Chicago Fire" at 10, and comedies in between. "About a Boy" survives after being buoyed by "The Voice," but moves to 9:30 to see if "Marry Me," a new romantic comedy starring Casey Wilson and Ken Marino (and created by Wilson's old "Happy Endings" boss Dave Caspe), can do notably better at 9. And if it can't, NBC has many comedies waiting in the wings to try in its place, including new shows produced by Tina Fey ("Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," about a young woman rescued from a cult) and Will Ferrell (Krysten Ritter as a '60s NASA scientist).
WEDNESDAY: The arrival of "Chicago Fire" spin-off "Chicago P.D." to Wednesdays at 10 provided some stability for the night (and also pleased longtime NBC collaborator Dick Wolf), so that stays in place with "Law & Order: SVU." And rather than try another ill-fated plan to launch Wednesday comedies, NBC tries to go with a police procedural triple-feature, leading things off at 8 with "The Mysteries of Laura," with "Smash" star Debra Messing playing a detective balancing work and family.
THURSDAY: In the schedule release, NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke talks about the comedy opportunities created by CBS airing Thursday night football games for eight weeks in the fall, which will force the relocation and/or postponement of "The Big Bang Theory," which slaughters all NBC Thursday at 8 comedies. Weirdly, though, they haven't actually put any new comedies in the 8 o'clock hour, instead using "The Biggest Loser" as a sacrificial lamb against football, then seeing how new comedies "Bad Judge" ("Private Practice" alum Kate Walsh as a misbehaving jurist) and "A to Z" (romantic comedy starring Ben Feldman from "Mad Men" and Cristin Milioti from "How I Met Your Mother") at 9 and 9:30. "Parenthood" returns for its final season at 10. After the Super Bowl, "The Blacklist" slides in at 9, and another spy drama, "Allegiance" (starring Scott Cohen and Hope Davis as deactivated KGB sleeper agents who are reluctantly returned to duty) will air at 10.
FRIDAY: NBC has done decently with "Dateline" at 8 and "Grimm" at 9, and has rotated various other shows at 10. (Expect "Hannibal" to air its third season there at some point next year.) In the fall, though, it's "Constantine," based on the DC Comics character (previously adapted into the Keanu Reeves movie of the same name), starring Matt Ryan as a trenchoat-wearing expert on the occult.
SATURDAY: NBC gave up on the night years ago, and just airs repeats.
That still leaves the final season of "Parks and Recreation," season 3 of "Hannibal," plus new shows "Mission Control," "Mr. Robinson" (Craig Robinson from "The Office" as a musician forced to work as a substitute teacher), "One Big Happy" (comedy starring Elisha Cuthbert and Nick Zano as a gay woman and her male best friend who decide to have a baby together, right before he falls for a new woman), "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," "Aquarius" (miniseries about David Duchovny chasing Charles Manson in the late '60s), "Emerald City" (miniseries reimagining characters from "The Wizard of Oz"), "Heroes Reborn," "Odyssey" ("Traffic"-like drama about terrorism) in need of places to land.
What does everybody think? Is this the schedule to keep NBC on top?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com