What will it take for NBC to climb out of the hole it's dug itself into in prime time? I don't know, and, from the look of things, neither do they.
On Monday the network made its annual upfront presentation to ad buyers, showcasing its upcoming fall programming lineup. The event was meant to mark something of a renaissance for NBC, which moved strongly back into scripted programming this year after handing over a full third of its weeknight hours to Jay Leno last fall. By ordering up a heavy slate of pilots at a time when other networks are cutting back, NBC signaled its intention to return to the glory days of Seinfeld, ER and Friends -- the days, in other words, when it was in first place in the ratings, not fourth.
But judging from the glimpses on offer, it's going to be more like a return to the days of My Own Worst Enemy and Coupling. On the drama side, the new series range from derivative (The Event, a serial mystery that bears a more than passing resemblance to Lost) to the somewhat more derivative (Chase, an action-drama about U.S. marshals) to the nakedly derivative spinoffs (Law & Order: Los Angeles).
The most original drama looks to be Undercovers, a romantic thriller about a husband-and-wife spy team. Undercovers comes from creator J.J. Abrams, who has a proven record of hits, with Alias and Lost. That alone will ensure it gets plenty of advance hype. Then again, last time NBC had a massively-hyped spy show, the result was the aforementioned disaster, My Own Worst Enemy.
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On the comedy front, NBC is concentrating its efforts on Thursday night, historically home to its biggest hits. Here, the problem is less that the new offerings lack imagination; it's that they just don't seem very funny. The upfront presentation featured lengthy previews of Outsourced, a new office comedy about a call center in India, and Love Bites, a romantic comedy from Sex and the City creator Cindy Chupack. Although both shows will occupy what was once primetime's most coveted real estate come fall, neither trailer provoked more than a handful of laughs from the upfront audience.
Indeed, the only real guffaws came at the expense of NBC itself. The presentation was packed with self-deprecating humor, much of it centered on the fact that the network relocated its upfront from Rockefeller Center to the more affordable Grand Hilton. "We did ultimately decide against the cash bar," quipped Alec Baldwin, in character as 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy, in a pre-taped introduction.
That's pretty funny. Unfortunately, the same pompous, cynical, jargon-spewing mindset that the writers of 30 Rock and The Office are so adept at skewering seems to be driving most of the network's other programming. According to The Wall Street Journal, NBC executives are now looking to organize their programming around three "central pillars": "Human First," "Fundamentally Positive" and "Inherent Ingenuity." Those are thought to be the brand values that united past NBC hits. But whoever drew up that list seems to have forgotten one important one: "not crappy."
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