NBC upfront feels need for speed
'Office,' 'Heroes' get supersized orders; Seinfeld pops inNBC's upfront presentation came in as billed — short and sweet — briefly touching on the network's new dramas and bringing back a blast from the past with an appearance by one-time NBC star Jerry Seinfeld.
A filled-to-capacity Radio City Music Hall witnessed the stripped-down show, a kind of NBC Uni Upfront 2.0.
"We'll have you out in a little over an hour," NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly promised, and he was pretty close to the mark: The running time was one hour and 25 minutes, compared with the three hours in 2004 that included screening the "Joey" pilot.
The cast of "30 Rock" made an appearance via video to open the show, and the cast of "Heroes" made a dramatic entrance after Reilly introduced the supersized 30-episode orders for "The Office" (including five one-hour episodes) as well as for "Heroes" (including six episodes of "Heroes: Origins," a mini-spinoff introducing six new characters, one of which will be chosen by viewers to join "Heroes" as a regular). There was no parade of the casts of new and returning stars, and the new shows got only a few minutes of clips apiece.
But the warmest applause went to Seinfeld, who is returning to NBC in the fall with a series of shorts that go behind the scenes of his new DreamWorks Animation film, "The Bee Movie." Seinfeld said that it was 10 years ago when he last stood on the stage at Radio City Music Hall for NBC.
"Is there anybody here tonight that was there? Does anyone remember me?" Seinfeld asked. "I had the No. 1 show. We were the No. 1 network on the air. Those were fun times," adding that times had changed in TV and for NBC.
"America watched what we had on the air or lived in fear of the consequences," he joked.
He said that he wouldn't go back to a regular TV show because he wanted to be like the Michael Jordan that scored the final point before his retirement to win an NBA championship and not the Jordan who played two more years with the Washington Wizards. (Reilly noted that he was a fan of the Wizards when Jordan played there.)
"And if even I wanted to do another TV series, I wouldn't even know how to do the kind of TV they do today with the worms and the one-legged dancing," Seinfeld said. "Sometimes it feels like the whole industry just packed up and joined the circus."
NBC has remained in fourth place this season despite a promising start; network executives didn't shy away from saying that despite improvements in quality, NBC has a long way to go.
"Why aren't our ratings better? Frankly, we need to be more better," Reilly said.
To do that, NBC is betting heavily on drama series, picking up five one-hour series for the fall and, for the first time in decades, no half-hour comedies.
Media buyers liked what they saw but reserved final judgment until they view the full pilots. One buyer who asked not to be named said the network seemed to make smart choices about which series to keep and which to replace next season. On the keepers list for this buyer were returning freshmen "30 Rock" and "Friday Night Lights," which he said needed to be given more time.
"They have a good foundation to build on," the buyer said.
John Rash of Minneapolis-based Campbell Mithun said the lack of new comedies was historic.
"It might be the first time a network upfront didn't have a single new comedy," he said.
At a news conference earlier in the day, Reilly pledged to add more comedy series as the season progresses. But he noted that primetime has become too precarious for half-hours to even build a new block outside of Thursday.
"You can't lead with your chin in comedy these days," Reilly said. "We really never contemplated opening another comedy night this year."
Reilly elaborated on the challenges ahead given NBC's fourth-place finish in the ratings, noting that all of the broadcasters have been feeling the crunch as of late, with many hit series hitting lows. He said NBC has been aggressive about sussing out whether the new DVR-only measurements from Nielsen Media Research are accurate.
"We are continuing to question and probe Nielsen to make sure we're completely kosher on the numbers," he said, though he added that the audience erosion might be here for good. "We are treating it like it is a sea change for the audience. We're not going to put our heads in the sands and assume it will get better next year."
By adding so few new series, Reilly said he is looking to avoid a classic mistake made by networks looking to play catch-up.
"If you go back and look historically at networks in down cycles, loading up on product is not necessarily a recipe for success," he said. If we add another 'Heroes' or a keeper to this schedule, we'll be in good shape."
Reilly said NBC made a conscious effort to hold back some programming and avoid front-loading its schedule lest the peacock repeat the pattern it experienced this season, in which a promising fall start sputtered to halt midway through the season.
"We don't want to flatten out and fall apart in the spring," he said, noting that at least one new drama and several comedies will be ready to go in March as part of year-round development efforts.
Giving the plum post-"Heroes" slot to new drama "Journeyman" was a no-brainer, Reilly said, noting that the time-travel pilot became the highest-testing NBC drama in five years.
"This is just a very special show," he said. "It's the kind of show that hits the commercial and artistic marks."
As for scheduling two rookie dramas, "Bionic Woman" and "Life," back-to-back on Wednesday, Reilly said NBC wanted to make a splash on a night that has been a struggle for the network.
"We've had no toehold at all on the night," he said. "A big goal for us was to get a tentpole up."
Reilly confirmed that several series, including "Crossing Jordan," "Raines" and "Identity," won't be coming back, and that presidential hopeful Fred Thompson is "highly unlikely" to come back for "Law & Order's" upcoming 18th season.
The future of "The Apprentice" remains up in the air, as is the future of NBC stalwart "ER" beyond its upcoming 14th season.
"We'll make a determination in October," Reilly said of "ER." "If we feel like this is it, we will make a very big deal of it driving the finale."
8 p.m. Deal or No Deal
9 p.m. Heroes
10 p.m. Journeyman
8 p.m. The Biggest Loser*
9 p.m. Chuck
10 p.m. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
8 p.m. Deal or No Deal*
9 p.m. Bionic Woman
10 p.m. Life
8 p.m. My Name Is Earl
8:30 30 Rock*
9 p.m. The Office*
10 p.m. ER
8 p.m. 1 vs 100/The Singing Bee
9 p.m. Las Vegas
10 p.m. Friday Night Lights*
8 p.m. Dateline NBC
9 p.m. Drama Series Encores
7 p.m. Football Night in America
8 p.m. NBC Sunday Night Football
7 p.m. Dateline NBC
8 p.m. Law & Order*
9 p.m. Medium*
10 p.m. Lipstick Jungle
* New time slot
Boldface indicates new show