Tuned In

NBC Throws a Hail Mary

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How do you know a network is in bad shape? When it starts telling you how much the TV critics love it. Kicking off NBC’s upfront presentation at Radio City Music Hall, when a more robust network might have trumpeted its ratings and demographics and glossy magazine covers, was a clip reel of scenes from its boutique comedy favorites My Name Is Earl and The Office, harnessing the blurbs of writers like some dweeb from Time magazine–"Priceless and daring!"–to prove that somebody out there loves something on the fourth-place network.

No offense to, um, me, but when your best shot at impressing the Madison Avenue ad buyers is telling them how cool I think your shows are, you’ve hit bottom. This is the state of NBC post-The West Wing, post-Friends, post-, for God’s sake, Joey. Which NBC programming chief Kevin Reilly more or less acknowledged. "I don’t know if you know," he said, "but NBC’s had a couple of challenges lately." The crowd did cheer loudly for the appearance of actors from Earl and Office–they’re in the upscale demo the shows cater to–but The Office’s B.J. Novak addressed Reilly’s situation best: "I’m the best-paid temp on television, except maybe for Kevin Reilly."

When you don’t have a lot of returning hits, you play up the new stuff. (There were, strangely, none of the usual, lugubrious tributes to departing shows like West Wing and Will & Grace.) NBC jumped right in, announcing six new dramas (four starting in fall) and four comedies (two fall, two midseason).

As I’ve said before, we only see clips at upfronts, which are not always predictive of the result. Yes, Dear looked hilarious at the upfronts. But judging by the reels and crowd reactions, NBC has a few things to be hopeful about. Tina Fey’s sketch-comedy-based sitcom, 30 Rock, answered the question of why it made the schedule along with the already-OKed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: it actually looked funny. (Studio 60 was hugely hyped and had an ambitious clip reel, with typical Aaron Sorkin patter and Judd Hirsch having a Howard Beale-style meltdown on the set of a sketch show, but it got only a tepid response from the room.) ""Every so often," said 30 Rock costar Alec Baldwin, "an idea comes along so unique that NBC only has two of them."

NBC also previewed Friday Night Lights, a drama spinoff of the high-school-football movie (which was a spinoff of a book), which looked convincingly movielike itself, making the gridiron action look real in a way that sports rarely do in scripted TV. The Black Donnellys, from Crash producers Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, looked more like Haggis’ 90s crime drama EZ Streets than like Crash (that’s a compliment). Kidnapped, about the abduction of a 15-year-old boy from a wealthy Manhattan family, looks worrisomely like a Law and Order episode stretched out to series length.

John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor star in sitcom 20 Good Years, about two aging pals who decide to live their remaining life to the fullest. (I love Tambor and am glad he’s working, but after Larry Sanders and Arrested Development I have to weep a little for the summer press tour session where he has to convince a room of critics that this is the best show he’s ever worked on.) Jeff Goldblum brings his highly mannered mannerisms to Raines, a drama about a detective who speaks to imaginary people. Finally, there was Heroes, a drama about ordinary people discovering they have superpowers, which Reilly described, not for the only time in the presentation, as "Unlike anything else."

At the least, the underdog network is taking some chances. Anything could happen by fall, when shows have been recast and finalized and ultimately make the air, but judging by today’s show, NBC could have a couple more critical favorites coming on air next season. God help it.

NBC also bragged about one remaining area in which it is number one, the news division–that’s the other sign your network is in sad shape–bringing out the dryly funny Brian Williams and new Today host Meredith Vieira, whom ABC released from its clutches for the afternoon. (I’ll be curious to see if NBC as graciously loans out Katie Couric for CBS’s upfront Wednesday. Any bets?) Meanwhile, network honcho Jeff Zucker pitched the Madison Avenue crowd on the network’s aggressive strategy of putting original programming online. This may well be the ad wave of the future–it promises to be a big focus of this year’s upfronts–but then after the year NBC has had, they’ll sell ad space on the back of Zucker’s suit jacket if they need to.

Finally, the network showed off the new announcing crew for its spankin’-new Sunday Night Football franchise. In what has to be one of the most attention-getting, and mildly dangerous, performances in upfront history, the SNF analysts competed to see who could throw a pigskin into the balcony. Former Steeler Jerome Bettis reared back and arced a spiral that landed right in the arms of one lucky suit at the railing. Then the whole crew–Bob Costas, John Madden, Al Michaels–lobbed more souvenir balls to the audience.

That’s the upfronts for you: network presenters on a stage, full of eager energy, heaving bomb after bomb into the arms of enthusiastic admen.