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Live—No, Taped—from New York (and Los Angeles), It's…

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You’re a once-powerful, now struggling TV network, one of whose many, many problems is a late-night comedy show, still pulling in viewers but widely regarded as mediocre for most of the past decade or two. What’s the solution? More of it! Twice–no, three times as much!

To be fair, Saturday Night Live is still capable of creating
watercooler moments. There was the much-forwarded "Lazy Sunday" video. Just this weekend, there was Al Gore’s surprise what-if presidential address from an administration in which the
Iraq war never happened, global warming ended and Michael Moore was
named to the Supreme Court. (The steroid scandal still happened–"But I have faith in Baseball Commissioner George W. Bush
when he says, ‘We will find the steroid users if we have to tap every
phone in America.’")

Good old Al–from Letterman to SNL, so much better in late night than he ever was in prime time. But it’s become an ever-longer slog to wait for the good stuff, and the appeal of waiting to find out what was funny and watching the snippets the next day is ever stronger. SNL has become the best advertising YouTube could ever hope for.

Still, when NBC announced its plans for the fall in an official press release this morning, it was no surprise that cash cow SNL is coming back. Nor was it a surprise that Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) would write a drama based on the behind-the-scenes squabbles at SNL, titled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: NBC ordered several of its fall shows early and made the Studio 60 pickup days ago.

What is surprising is that the network will also air 30 Rock, a sitcom created by and starring Tina Fey, one of the few silver linings on the leaden cloud that is SNL–about the behind-the-scenes struggles of, yes, a sketch comedy show. Every fall, the networks remind us that the TV idea pool is a tiny and limited ecosystem by airing remarkably similar ideas; it just doesn’t usually happen at the same network.

To be fair, the shows are not exactly the same. Fey’s puts women front and center (herself and SNL colleague Rachel Dratch); Sorkin’s ensemble focuses on two male writers (Friends’ Matthew Perry and The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford). Also, one is twice as long as the other, which NBC has addressed with the useful mnemonic of calling the hourlong show Studio 60 and the half-hour 30 Rock. TV really is educational!

I don’t know if NBC seriously believes both shows can flourish together. But it has so many holes to fill and the success rate for new shows is so low, that it may as well try both and see which sticks. SNL has been coasting on its formulas and catchphrases for years.  The only question is whether viewers find all this funny or sad. Next fall, NBC will be covered either way.

Other highlights on the NBC schedule: a midseason comedy from Andy Richter and Conan O’Brien; new dramas The Black Donnellys and Kidnapped, already sent to critics; superhero drama Heroes and football drama Friday Night Lights; fall football on Sunday nights; the exile of Scrubs and Crossing Jordan to returning-at-some-point-in-the-season limbo; the banishment of The Apprentice to January after football; and the dispatch of Dick Wolf’s lawyer drama Conviction to the great hung jury in the sky.

NBC’s schedule, excerpted from its press release, follows; I’ll report on NBC’s end-of-the-day upfront show by tonight or tomorrow morning.


*New programs in CAPS (with the exception of "ER")

8-9 p.m.        "Deal or No Deal"      
9-10 p.m.       "HEROES"
10-11 p.m.      "Medium"

8-9 p.m.        "FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS"
9-10 p.m.       "KIDNAPPED"
10-11 p.m.      "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"   

8-9 p.m.         "The Biggest Loser"
9-9:30 p.m.     "20 GOOD YEARS"
9:30-10 p.m.    "30 ROCK"      
10-11 p.m.      "Law & Order"

8-8:30 p.m.     "My Name Is Earl" (new time)   
8:30-9 p.m.     "The Office" (new time)
9-10 p.m.       "STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP"
10-11 p.m.      "ER"/("THE BLACK DONNELLYS" in January 2007)

8-9 p.m.        "Deal or No Deal"
9-10 p.m.       "Las Vegas"   
10-11 p.m.      "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (new day and time)

8-9 p.m.        "Dateline Saturday"
9-11 p.m.       Drama Series Encores

7-8 p.m.        "FOOTBALL NIGHT IN AMERICA"    
8-11 p.m.       "SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL"