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NBC: 30 Rock to Become a Documentary

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Not the high-school yearbook photo of NBC’s Ben Silverman. / NBC

Well, not exactly. But in its fall schedule pitch for advertisers (repeated for reporters in Manhattan this afternoon), the front-and-center message from NBC’s execs could more or less have come out of the mouth of Jack Donaghy: Advertisers, we will pretty much do whatever you want us to.

Earlier, NBC had announced taking the next step in product placement—or rather, the first step, since it harks back to 1950s TV—of having a single sponsor back an entire program: in this case, Liberty Mutual insurance, which will bring you the two-hour movie/pilot for the upcoming series Kings, because it ties into one of the insurance company’s current branding initiatives. After the presentation kicked off with a reel of great product “integrations” from the NBC Universal family—Knight Rider! Project Runway! Lipstick Jungle!—NBC sales and marketing president Mike Pilot promised advertisers that the network had the power to take products and “make them TV stars.” He continued: “You’ll become more than a sponsor. You’ll own a piece of pop culture.”

This, he said, was because the network was committed to moving beyond mere product placement and into “integration” and “collaboration” with advertisers in the development process. In today’s media market, he said, “The best collaborators are going to be leaders.” Just like in Vichy France!

NBC’s new and returning program news after the jump:

What’s returning: besides FNL, there’s Heroes, The Office, L&O, SVU, Chuck, E.R. (for its final season), My Name Is Earl, Medium, 30 Rock, Deal or No Deal, Life, The Biggest Loser and Lipstick Jungle (a bit of a surprise). Also, numerous reality and summer programs. You’re not getting rid of American Gladiators that easily.

And what’s new?

* A spinoff of The Office, which will also be produced by Greg Daniels and will get the plum post-Super Bowl premiere slot. No details on the premise, nor about whether any of said details have been worked out.

* Knight Rider, the series, a natural after 21 million people watched the backdoor pilot movie.

* My Own Worst Enemy, in which Christian Slater[!] plays a government agent with a dual identity.

* A remake of acerbic Australian sitcom Kath & Kim, starring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair. (This, like many of the new projects, was announced some time ago.)

* Crusoe—yes, as in Robinson, the series. Surprisingly, not a reality show.

* The Listener, a drama about a telepath.

* The Chopping Block, a reality vehicle for celeb chef Marco Pierre White, whom NBC bills as the man who once made Gordon Ramsay cry.

* The aforementioned Kings, in which Ian McShane (Deadwood) plays the king of a contemporary America (or America-like nation; the descriptions were contradictory) which became a monarchy instead of a republic.

* The Philanthropist, a Fontana/Levinson drama about a billionaire with a second life as a do-gooder. Or a vigilante. Is there really a difference?

* Merlin. A series set in Camelot, about the wizard. No indication from the stage as to whether any executive present remembered that NBC did this ten years ago as a miniseries.

* Top Gear, a remake of the British car-lovers’ show, which reportedly autophile Jay Leno refused to host (for fear NBC would ruin it), so they got Adam Carolla—the universal-replacement host—instead.

There was also a schedule grid, which I’m loath to reproduce because (1) I’m lousy at doing tables in HTML and (2) the fall sked—let alone those announced for winter, spring and, yes, summer 2009— will almost certainly change after the other broadcast networks announce their own fall schedules at the more traditional time, next month.

Overarching themes? According to NBC network chief Ben Silverman (or his PowerPoint), NBC is focusing on “INSPIRING – HEROIC – ENTERTAINING – ESCAPIST – ENGAGING – HEROES & SUPERHEROES.” It’s all about uplift at the new NBC, uplift that involves magic, psychics and talking cars. “We will not be doing The Moment of Truth on NBC,” Silverman declared. Instead, it will deliver the inspiring, engaging heroes of American Gladiators.

Beyond that, it’s hard to even take a guess at the quality of the new shows: the trailers were much shorter than at an old-fashioned upfront, and many had no trailers, because they were ordered straight from scripts, without a pilot.

For those of you interested in the inside-biz of it all, by the way: Silverman has taken a lot of heat, both from critics and other TV execs that he’s feuded with, since he’s taken the job. But he was at least funny and engaging in his remarks—for all his legendary weird intensity—he does seem to have a real sense of the forces changing his business, and the guy did manage to import shows like The Office and Ugly Betty. That is, unlike Jeff Zucker, he at least has a gut with which to make gut decisions—whether it’s a golden gut or not. (And seriously, though I make fun of NBC’s aggressive “product integration,” as long as it doesn’t affect the quality of programming, I can’t get too scandalized over the fact that advertisers pay for free TV.)

But there was a strange, almost cult-of-personality-like air to the way he spoke of his new leadership team and his executives spoke of him. Pilot described him in effusively laudatory terms—he’s a unique talent, he’s a rare individual, he owns a room when he holds a discussion, he’s one of the only people in Hollywood who can talk seamlessly about the details of the creative and business end of TV, etc. It was like hearing Chris Matthews talk about Obama.

And Silverman kept referring to himself and his programming chief, Teri Weinberg—with whom he worked at his production company Reveille—not by talking up NBC’s history (the way executives usually talk to advertisers at an upfront) but rather by putting their work at NBC in the context of their careers at Reveille. (E.g., comparing their achievements in “our first eight months at NBC” with those of “our first six months at Reveille,” where they hatched Ugly Betty, The Office, The Biggest Loser and other hits.) In other words, he was speaking as though Reveille had completed a corporate takeover of NBC, or as if the entity he was really speaking for was The Ben Silverman Network (obvious joke about initials here), which just happened to be hosted, for the moment, on the airspace of NBC.

Of course, if his ratings match his talk and he can turn around the languishing network, he can call the damn thing whatever he wants.