NBC: No Bad Comedies?
The Peacock Network is having ratings problems, but executives painted a rosy picture for the new season at the 'upfront' with a lineup heavy on new dramas.
By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - The ability to laugh at oneself is said to be key to a healthy lifestyle. If that's truly the case, then executives at the NBC television network must be pretty darn healthy.

Making light of the ratings woes at NBC was a prominent theme throughout the network's upfront presentation at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Monday. NBC, which is currently languishing in fourth place among the advertiser-coveted demographic of 18-49 year olds, trotted out producers and stars of new and returning series, and many of them took pointed jabs at the network's status.

NBC is set to finish the 2005-2006 season in fourth place with 18-49 year olds but the network is hoping for a ratings turnaround this fall.
NBC is set to finish the 2005-2006 season in fourth place with 18-49 year olds but the network is hoping for a ratings turnaround this fall.
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Paul Haggis, the Academy Award-winning director of "Crash," quipped that after winning a few Oscars, he thought he'd be on the No. 1 network. Haggis is the creator of a new crime show called "The Black Donnellys" that will debut in January.

And Nate Corddry, currently a correspondent of the "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central and member of the cast for NBC's new drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," joked that he was excited about moving from basic cable to NBC "despite the reduction in audience."

But it was not all self-deprecatory humor at the presentation. NBC, the first of the prime-time networks to unveil its fall lineup to advertisers this week, also conveyed a sense of hope that the worst may be over for the network, which ruled the ratings through much of the 1980s and 1990s.

Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment, said NBC was proud of risks it took this season, particularly with the two quirky comedies "My Name is Earl" and "The Office." Those two shows were both critical favorites and ratings bright spots for NBC on Thursday nights. Reilly said he hoped the network's slate of new scripted shows would also provide some much-needed "rocket fuel."

"Even while bringing up the rear on the ratings front, NBC has gotten out ahead in programming trends," Reilly said. "I'm ready for this season to be over but I couldn't wait to share with you our new series."

In addition to "Donnellys" and "Studio 60," NBC is also rolling out two new sitcoms, including one called "30 Rock," which like "Studio 60" is also about the behind the scenes maneuvering on the set of a "Saturday Night Live"-esque sketch comedy show, and two other dramas.

Up first in the upfronts

This week's upfront presentations mark the beginning of a frenzied mating ritual between networks and marketers, a time when many advertisers make the majority of their ad spending decisions for the upcoming TV season. And NBC is clearly in need of a ratings turnaround.

The network reported a sizable decline in ad revenue from the 2005 upfront period while other networks, most notably Disney's (Research) ABC, posted gains in ad sales. Many television experts are predicting that, at best, the total amount of spending that advertisers will commit to this season will simply match last year's $9.1 billion.

Still, the biggest potential hit for NBC won't have a script. NBC will broadcast National Football League games on Sunday nights. Reilly predicted that Sunday night NFL games would be a big injection for NBC because in addition to strong ratings, the football telecasts will give the network ample opportunities to promote the rest of its weekly lineup.

NBC also touted several new online video offerings to advertisers. Like other networks, NBC is attempting to cash in on increased demand for online video and the resulting boom in ads tied to these videos.

During the presentation, NBC Universal Television Group chief executive officer Jeffrey Zucker said that moving more content online was one of the network's top priorities. He showed the audience clips of Webisodes of "The Office" -- original short videos featuring the show's characters that will air only online.

Zucker also unveiled plans for a new broadband comedy channel called DotComedy.com as well as FirstLook.com, sites for NBC as well as NBC Universal-owned cable networks USA, Bravo and Sci-Fi Channel that will feature previews of shows from these networks before they air on TV.

Finally, Zucker said that NBC Universal's deal for iVillage, the online site catering to women, officially closed Monday and that iVillage would immediately start working on tie-ins with the company's broadcast and cable networks. NBC Universal, a subsidiary of General Electric (Research), announced in March that it was buying iVillage for $600 million.

But if NBC is going to turn things around, it's going to need a hit or two that attracts fanatical buzz.

To that end, while waiting online to get into Radio City Music Hall, the following telling conversation was overheard between some NBC employees. One said to his co-workers that he hoped the party after the presentation didn't go on for too long because he needed to get home to watch "24", the hit show that airs on Fox. Another co-worker quickly pointed out that he probably shouldn't make that comment in front of the media buyers.

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For more about this year's upfront, click here.

For five big questions about the future of TV, click here. Top of page

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