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Upfronts 2011: NBC Hopes for Turnaround, Trump Not Running for President (UPDATED with Video)

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The headline first: At NBC’s upfront schdule presentation to advertisers today in New York, Donald Trump announced that he is not running for President. (As I told you in February.) The announcement, which may have stunned political reporters who forgot that Trump did the same thing in 1988 and 2000, was brief: “as much as I’d like to,” Trump said, he would instead stay on his NBC show and continue using the show to raise money for charity. Because he can do much more good as a reality host than as the leader of the free world.

The audience cheered the news loudly. Good cheering or bad cheering? I’m sure The Donald will hear it as good cheering.

As for NBC’s new season announcement, from the new team installed after the takeover by Comcast, it was also largely focused on what they would not do: namely, run the network into the ground through stunt programming and cost cutting, as the Jeff Zucker regime did.

Greenblatt and other NBC executives were unusually frank for an upfronts presentation. The network was not in great shape, Greenblatt said: “In the past, no one did it better than NBC. … We know some of that has slipped away.” And, he added, rebuilding would take time: his mandate is “to rebuild NBC the right way. Show by show, over the long term.”

Greenblatt, who had a string of programming successes at Showtime, will enjoy a honeymoon for a while simply for not being Zucker. But of course it’s easy to be candid about your predecessor’s mistakes: the question will be whether NBC is delivering a spin-free upfront next year, and whether Comcast shows the same patience a year or so from now if NBC is not doing measurably better. (It is worth noting that, for all the talk of developing quality scripted shows and waiting for ratings, the network began and ended by crowing about the instant success of The Voice. Would Comcast rather have two more of those, or two more 30 Rocks?)

In any case, what this critic—and I assume viewers—care about is simply: will the new shows be any good or not? It’s always hard to say from the brief clips shown at upfronts, but there was nothing in the trailers for NBC’s six new fall shows that left me dying to see a pilot. (See here for trailers from all the shows.)

Maria Bello looks appealing in Prime Suspect, but I’m concerned about a shift in tone from the British original: the trailer emphasized her homicide cop as a woman in a boys’ club (odd after we’ve seen so many female homicide cops in primetime), while mostly dispensing with the self-destructiveness that made Helen Mirren’s performance so memorable. The Playboy Club looks like an interesting idea with suspect execution: the high-glitz trailer reminded me less of AMC’s Mad Men than NBC’s old show Las Vegas, with a nostalgia element. Grimm, a high-concept crime show about a cop who can see fairytale monsters in real life, did not exactly feel like a wish come true.

NBC’s three fall comedies are a mix: Whitney, starring comic Whitney Cummings, looked funnier than I expected, but it’s traditional multi-camera, audience-laughter format may be an odd fit in the time slot after The Office. Up All Night, with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as new parents, had potential but no hilarious moments in the trailer; Free Agent, about the aftermath of an office one-night stand, could be darkly funny or just creepy.

The interesting material will wait until midseason. By far the best looking trailer was for the new drama Awake, from the creator of the short-lived Lone Star. In it, a man (Jason Isaacs) survives a car crash and finds himself switching between two different realities whenever he falls asleep: in one, his wife died in the crash, and in the other his teenage son did. Which is the dream and which reality? (Oh, also: the protagonist is a policeman, who uses clues he “dreams” in one reality to solve cases in the other.) It all looked very moody and very trippy, and I’m eager to see it.

NBC’s other midseason hope, the musical Smash, looks like a much more conventional, grown-up take on the Glee format (it involves the making of a musical about marilyn Monroe), but I’m curious to see more. (Among the other sneak peeks, Brian Williams briefly talked up the embyonic primetime newsmagazine he’s developing.)

NBC repeated its mantra of “patience” several times in the presentation. Implicit in that was a plea for patience from others: advertisers, the press, viewers and maybe Comcast itself. Robert Greenblatt has a lot of people cheering for him. But he had better hope his bosses are more patient, and less trigger-happy, than Donald Trump.

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