At NBC, Supersizing the Season

April 3, 2008

Here are some of NBC’s big promises: fewer reruns, 65 weeks of new shows, the return of sentimental favorites like “E.R.” and “Friday Night Lights” — and more product placements from advertisers in its programs.

A glimpse of the network’s plans for prime time came Wednesday when NBC invited advertising executives and journalists to hear about its program lineup and new philosophy.

After the Hollywood writers’ strike ended in February, NBC broke ranks with the other networks by saying that it was scrapping various television traditions, including the mass introducing of shows in the fall. This week the network, which has sagged in the prime-time ratings for most of the last four years, is fleshing out its vision of the network of the future.

After saying earlier that it would replace the fall season with a 52-week schedule of show introductions, NBC went a step further on Wednesday, announcing what it labeled a “superseason” of programs that will fill 65 weeks, from this June through August 2009.

Among the shows NBC intends to sprinkle throughout that expanse are a spinoff of its hit comedy “The Office,” a revival of the 1980s series “Knight Rider,” an adaptation of the classic novel “Robinson Crusoe,” and a Americanization of the most successful Australian comedy ever, “Kath and Kim.”

Saying that it would double the amount of original programming it offered 10 years ago, NBC promised a season of far fewer repeats, with none at all among the shows to appear at 10 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. It also committed to the old concept of keeping the 8 o’clock hour devoted to programming that a family could watch together.

Ben Silverman, the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, acknowledged that the network is doing everything it can to try to capitalize on the big events it will control over the next year, like the Summer Olympics from Beijing and the next Super Bowl.

“I really personally believe this is the opportunity for us to make that big move,” said Mr. Silverman, who led the presentations on Wednesday. “It’s why NBC is backing us so hard with investment in original programming, and why we’re scattering the original programming all around.”

The show that will carry the biggest load is the comedy “The Office,” which Mr. Silverman originally brought to the network as a producer. NBC has ordered 28 half-hours of the show, well above the usual top network order of 24, and it is asking the same production team to create the spinoff, the details of which Mr. Silverman declined to reveal.

NBC is giving its best drama position — Monday at 10, after “Heroes” — to a new drama, “My Own Worst Enemy,” with Christian Slater, making his debut as the main character in a television series, playing a family man with an alter ego as a Jason Bourne-like super spy.

NBC will try to break comedy into a new night — Tuesday — by slotting “Kath and Kim,” the story of a mother and daughter with big personalities and bad accents (Molly Shannon and Selma Blair will play the roles), after 90-minute episodes of “The Biggest Loser.”

The idea of breaking the boundaries of the traditional season is not new. The Fox network has for years unveiled a lineup of shows in May intended to cover most or all of the next year. Invariably, that schedule has undergone huge upheaval as shows fail quickly and have to be replaced. Mr. Silverman said he was aware that “adjustments will have to be made,” but argued that advertisers were looking more and more for a longer-range sense of how to reach consumers.

Executives at NBC, a part of the NBC Universal unit of General Electric, emphasized that the main purpose of their presentations this week was to bring the advertisers into the process earlier than before and in more creative ways. The other networks will hold their analogous presentations next month, when they will parade their new shows in front of advertisers in ceremonies known as upfronts.

“I think they accomplished what they wanted to,” said Harry Keeshan, executive vice president for national broadcast at PHD in New York, a media agency owned by the Omnicom Group. “Most of our clients thought it was well worth the time.”

Mr. Keeshan said that some PHD clients were now interested in discussions “that might not have been in sync if NBC had waited another four to six weeks.”

One new deal NBC announced Wednesday was a joint promotion with the Liberty Mutual insurance company to back a new drama called “Kings,” a modern-day retelling of the David and Goliath story. The themes of the show are meant to be consistent with Liberty Mutual’s “Responsibility Project,” which promotes personal responsibility.

NBC is striving to stick to positive messages in its programs, Mr. Silverman said, noting that a common thread in its shows was people “trying to make the world a better place.”

As a contrast, he cited the hit Fox reality show, “Moment of Truth,” in which people reveal embarrassing details of their personal lives to win money. “There will be no ‘Moment of Truth’ on NBC,” he said.

That said, NBC will still offer plenty of opportunities for people to humiliate themselves. A full roster of reality shows will include new versions of “Deal or No Deal,” “The Biggest Loser,” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” and two cycles of “American Gladiators.”

NBC will also rely heavily on its “Saturday Night Live” franchise, opening the show’s season earlier than usual, on Sept. 14, and adding four original prime-time half-hour versions in October pegged to the presidential election.

Despite all the time it wants to fill with original content, NBC did not announce an inordinate number of new series — only eight until a year from this summer. But it will bring back almost all the shows that had been marginal ratings performers, including the first-season dramas “Life” and “Lipstick Jungle,” as well as one of the oldest dramas on television, “E.R.” which will be back for what is formally being called its final season.

Among the shows that will not return are last fall’s most-promoted newcomer, “Bionic Woman,” which flopped after a strong start, and the comedy “Scrubs,” which is expected to be picked up by a rival network, ABC, for a final season.

NBC also made a deal to return the much praised but low-rated drama “Friday Night Lights,” but with a twist: The satellite service DirecTV will run the series this fall for its subscribers, then NBC will start broadcasting it in January.

NBC had made much of its plan to blow up the spring tradition of unveiling a fall television schedule in May for huge audiences of advertisers. It called its event on Wednesday an “infront,” twitting its competitors, who will be sticking to the May dates.

Guy McCarter, an executive at another Omnicom agency, Greenroom Entertainment, who attended the Wednesday morning presentation, said NBC made “an impressive start.”

“I do think with Ben it’s more than just talk,” said Mr. McCarter, managing director at Greenroom Entertainment in New York.

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