I’m not sure what I was expecting to hear at NBC’s Infront-Upfront presentation yesterday, but I’m pretty sure the words “Eight o’clock is the family hour on NBC!” hadn’t crossed my mind.
That retro-sounding remark was one of many upbeat declarations by a very genial Ben Silverman, who was announcing the details of his first full season schedule as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. Seriously, I haven’t heard a programming executive at a broadcast network speak enthusiastically about the “family hour” since the last millennium. I half expected the walls of the Pegasus Room high atop 30 Rock to crack open, an indication that the world had spun off its axis.
The press had gathered to hear Silverman, along with NBC Entertainment executive vice president Teri Weinberg, NBC Universal Sales and Marketing president Michael Pilot and Network Ad Sales president Marianne Gambelli, run through the very same small-scale presentation they are making to groups of advertising executives in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles this year in lieu of the network’s traditional Upfront week extravaganza. When asked, virtually every NBC executive in the room noted that the reception from the advertising community to this new approach has been one of uniform enthusiasm.
Certainly, the dozens of reporters in attendance seemed to prefer this intimate information output -- a comfortable six weeks before the frenzy of Upfront week -- to the usual big show at Radio City Music Hall. They also welcomed the opportunity to be able to focus on one network’s message far away from the compromising crunch of the broadcast pack in May. It’s a win for NBC, too, which at present is enjoying the undivided attention of reporters and advertisers alike, not to mention uncluttered media coverage of its new season plans.
Actually, Silverman and Co. didn’t merely reveal NBC’s fall schedule and assorted midseason highlights, as networks generally do in May. They are all so high on the results of their development and scheduling efforts and so certain of their new year-round programming strategy that they shared with reporters NBC’s primetime schedule all the way through to the end of summer 2009, a time span of 65 weeks! NBC’s summer ’09 schedule is largely comprised of the same unscripted programming (America’s Got Talent, American Gladitors, The Biggest Loser, Nashville Star, Last Comic Standing) that will play out in summer 2008 before and after the network’s coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
There will be hundreds of stories in the press about the specifics of the summer ’08, fall ’08, winter ’09 and summer ’09 primetime plans NBC unveiled yesterday, but it is important to keep in mind that everything is subject to change at this early date. “We obviously always have to react in this three-dimensional chess game we're playing,” Silverman cautioned. Still, the executives did a fine job in conveying a strong sense of structure and stability going forward.
The surprising take-away from the day was the rather traditional message that Silverman put forth at a time when future-focused technology and digital platforms are driving all media. (When I say “traditional” I mean it in the best possible way.) He spoke of NBC’s commitment to family friendly programming at 8 p.m., which this fall will include the updated version of the '80s hit Knight Rider on Tuesday and a series adaptation of the legendary story of Robinson Crusoe titled Crusoe on Friday. At mid-season the fantasy series Merlin (about the early lives of Merlin and Arthur in the mythic city of Camelot) will debut at 8 p.m. on Sunday. (Yes, NBC is adapting two literary classics into primetime series. Like the whole family hour thing, I didn't see that coming, either.) In addition to family-friendly programming and adventure series, Silverman announced that NBC in the year ahead would offer up two four-hour mini-series events: The Last Templar and XIII. Patriotism was another big theme of the presentation: Silverman actually beamed when he referred to NBC’s summer season as its “All-American Summer.”
And how's this for retro? NBC wants to bring Saturday back! “We're looking to you to come back to Saturday night,” Silverman said. (He wasn't directing that statement toward the press. Remember, this was a run-through of the presentation being made to advertisers.) “If you come back, we'll come back. We're looking to bring back original programming. We want to fill the docket from 8-11.” At present, NBC's Saturday schedule will remain a mix of original editions of Dateline and repeats of scripted series through the end of summer '09.
Also on the feel-good front: Silverman lit up the room when he confirmed that the critically acclaimed but ratings challenged Friday Night Lights would return for a third season, the result of a multi-platform partnership with DirecTV. There will be 13 new episodes that will begin running on DirecTV's entertainment channel The 101 in October. They will be seen on NBC at midseason. “Only 15 percent of our audience will be able to see [FNL] on DirecTV,” Silverman said, adding that the more DirecTV does to promote the series, the better. “We also own the show,” he noted.
There was entirely too much enthusiasm expressed for the fact that Christian Slater this fall would be starring in a new drama series titled My Own Worst Enemy, about a middle class suburban husband and father who is a secret government operative. “Christian Slater is a hand-picked star!” Silverman said of NBC's success in signing him.
Slater's show will run at 10 p.m. -- the time slot Silverman designated as one for programming with “adult themes and high end drama.”
Among the new shows announced that seemed to generate the most interest: An Americanized version of the Australian comedy series Kath & Kim, which Silverman dubbed “the best comedy you have yet to see,” and a spin-off of The Office that will involve the entire creative team of the mother show. No details about the latter were revealed. “The watermarked idea will not be shared today,” Silverman laughed.
Silverman credited his team's ability to announce so much new programming so far in advance of the traditional Upfront week to NBC's decision to order new projects “straight to series,” bypassing the obstruction of the traditional pilot – something the network had started doing before the WGA strike. “Ninety percent of pilots are not representative of series and ultimately fail,” he said. “We're not green-lighting anything without scripts.”
This is key for advertisers, he added, noting that, “If you are an advertising partner you can read five or six scripts” for one of NBC's new shows. There will be no more week-two let-downs with new series, or so NBC hopes.
The presentation yesterday opened on a humorous note, with a clip featuring Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson as their characters from The Office speaking to advertisers from what appeared to be a wild party at a club with dancing girls on the bar. “We're coming to you from Ben's office!” Carell, as Michael Scott, explained, referring to Silverman's depiction in the press this past year as a party guy.