|NEW YORK -- For two years, the television industry has wondered when NBC President of Entertainment Kevin Reilly's darkly comedic outlook would enliven his network's prime-time lineup.|
He's even taking some heat from his own team. NBC opened its presentation of its new fall lineup to advertising buyers here on Monday with several actors taking turns quipping about what it's like to be on a Thursday-night show at the network. B.J. Novak, of the hit comedy "The Office," said, "I may be the highest-paid temp in television. Except for Kevin Reilly."
But Reilly is done with the self-deprecation tour of last year, when he shrugged away the network's fourth-place standing. He's ready for a victory lap.
Remember, this is the man who had a hand in creating some of television's recent spate of memorably flawed men: Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey and doctors Sean McNamara and Christian Troy.
That's right, the same man who premiered "Father of the Pride" in his first season at NBC, who is watching as his network lags behind once again helped to develop "The Sopranos" (insofar as David Chase will let anyone near his masterpiece) when he was president of Brad Grey Television; and later, as head of FX's programming, turned that basic cable network from the home of NASCAR to HBO's fiercest rival in terms of groundbreaking original series.
It was Reilly who allowed for unknown writer Shawn Ryan to create a cop drama ("The Shield") in which its lead police detective (Mackey) kills another cop at the end of the pilot, and for FX to launch a drama about sexy Miami plastic surgeons (McNamara and Troy) who feed a man to alligators in the Everglades at the end of the "Nip/Tuck" pilot.
"I like flawed, complicated men and the women who are drawn to them," Reilly half-joked.
So what gives? How does a viewer reconcile that stellar water-cooler track record with this season's safe and fruitless bounty, such as "E-Ring" and "Four Kings"?
"This is the first season where our team really came together," Reilly said. "Success got in the way of the network and I think everyone kind of needed to clear it out, everyone had to clean the pipes in a way and reset and refocus."
To be fair, Reilly walked into his big Burbank office in the spring of 2004 just as "Friends" and "Frasier" were bidding adieu, NBC's other strongholds were aging, and his predecessor, NBC Universal Television Group Chief Executive Jeff Zucker, had been counting on just the Donald and his apprentices to keep the network on top. But that was two years ago, and this season, with a schedule chosen by Reilly, NBC will wind up in fourth place again among 18- to 49-year-old viewers, an audience it dominated for a decade mostly due to its Thursday "Must-See" lineup.
As a result, rumors that Reilly would be fired have been as rampant as the speculation that Zucker is still calling the shots.
"It was either that I was leaving or being asked to leave," Reilly said. "One of the most difficult things was talking a lot about the past. It was a lot about diminished shows or shows that were on their way out. Now, I'm excited about talking about the future…. I've been waiting patiently and working diligently to be able to say the worst is behind us," Reilly said.
Those words could easily come out of any network president at this time of year, as they all fight for a piece of the big Madison Avenue advertising pie, but NBC seems to be getting back its mojo. The network can claim the only true comedy successes of the season with the pairing of "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office" — sitcoms that center, again, on imperfect but appealing men — on Thursday nights and has found an unexpected hit in the game show "Deal or No Deal," which took a big bite out of CBS' critical darling "How I Met Your Mother."
Focusing his attention on dramas this development cycle, Reilly is launching several shows whose star-studded casts and producing pedigree take a back seat to the fresh narratives they spin. "The Black Donnellys," about Irish gangsters on its surface, is a story of brotherly love told by an unexpected narrator. "Kidnapped," a high-stakes thriller about the kidnapping of a teenage boy, examines deceit and the need to keep up appearances. "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" goes behind the scenes of a late-night sketch show.
"It's really fun watching people who are seemingly bad struggle to be good and people who are good trying to prevent themselves from having lapses of morality," Reilly said. "You're going to see it from the characters who are at the center of 'Studio 60.' Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford struggling with their addictions. I think that's a fascinating aspect that's been really underrepresented on television, the idea of addiction with two guys who are both lovable and sweet and funny and yet have had issues and are a support network for one another."
NBC banks on a drastic revamp
NBC officials laid out a new fall schedule Monday that heavily emphasizes dramas, pledging that the slate of new programming is going to usher in a fresh chapter for the beleaguered network.
In a morning news conference at NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters, visibly relieved network executives touted half a dozen new dramas and several new comedies as the kind of quality programming that once made NBC the top-rated network.
"I think it's been a banner year for NBC development," said Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment. "We've hit the gold mine here."
The network is drastically remaking its schedule, scrapping nearly every new show that it launched last season except for the quirky hit "My Name Is Earl." (Game show "Deal or No Deal" is also returning twice a week.)
"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" will anchor this fall's Thursday night, a lineup that represents a change for NBC, which powered its decade-long running streak largely on its Thursday-night comedy schedule. But this year, the network has decided to go with just two Thursday comedies, "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office."
Thursday will see the return of "ER," which will air for 13 straight episodes, and then be replaced after the winter holidays with "The Black Donnellys."
Meanwhile, Reilly said that "Law & Order," one of the cornerstones of the NBC lineup, would get something of a face-lift next season.
"You're going to see some changes coming," he said. "Dick Wolf is going to reinvigorate it again. Several cast changes in the works, those will happen over the next month or so. A few offers may go out as early as this week."
The network is holding on to half a dozen shows as backup for the season, including "Crossing Jordan," "Scrubs" and two new comedies: "The Singles Table" and "Andy Barker, P.I."
"The Black Donnellys" Crime series about working-class Irish youths in New York
"Kidnapped" Thriller in which the teen son of a wealthy family is kidnapped
"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" Aaron Sorkin's drama set behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show
"Friday Night Lights" High school football in a small Texas town
"Heroes" Ordinary people gain new superpowers
"Raines" A cop uses visions of murder victims to solve cases
"Singles Table" A group of singles grows to become friends and lovers
"Andy Barker, P.I." Andy Richter as a failed CPA turned private eye
"Twenty Good Years" John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor as two mismatched buddies
"30 Rock" Tina Fey comedy set behind the scenes of a television show
"Conviction," "E-Ring," "Fear Factor," "Four Kings," "Heist," "Inconceivable," "Joey," "Surface," "Teachers," "Three Wishes," "West Wing," "Will & Grace."