News Column

NBC's flickers of faint hope in a troubled picture

July 30, 2013

YellowBrix

July 30--BEVERLY HILLS -- NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt was only kidding when his executive report to members of the Television Critics Association was interrupted by music wafting in from an unknown source.

"We'll just play the music all day long," he said from the stage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel's ballroom. "Maybe you will have something fun to write about."

Even Greenblatt knew that NBC's position among the major broadcast networks wasn't "something fun," but the network is grasping at a few ratings straws as it goes into the fall season, such as its claim that it's within a tenth of a point of being in second place and four-tenths of a point away from being No. 1.

That's not quite like saying you've got one of the better deck chairs on the Titanic, but it's close, as viewership for broadcast television continues its slide.

"Season to date, we're the only broadcast network flat from the previous season," he said. "I know one could say, how good is it to celebrate being flat? But at this point in our business, flat is the new up."

Happy days are here again.

NBC isn't alone in its ability to practice a kind of corporate shell game with numbers. Straw-grasping is a fundamental corporate strategy in broadcast TV these days as it tries to compete with cable and new content platforms such as Netflix, and with how rapidly viewers are changing when and how they access TV shows, via DVRs, computers and other devices.

NBC also isn't alone in looking to event programming as one way to stanch the flow of viewers away from broadcast. Once again, NBC will have a very big event with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but it is also looking to load its schedule with other events, such as the two-week game show known as "The Million Second Quiz" in September and a string of very big miniseries, in addition to the previously announced sequel to the History Channel's "The Bible."

On Saturday, Greenblatt said NBC is developing a four-hour miniseries about Hillary Clinton, starring Diane Lane. NBC will also revisit Ira Levin's novel "Rosemary's Baby" with a four-hour, updated miniseries to be produced by Lionsgate with a script by Scott Abbott ("Introducing Dorothy Dandridge"). In addition, the network will develop a miniseries based on Stephen King's "Tommyknockers," and a limited series called "Plymouth" about the Pilgrims' voyage to the New World.

Kerrigan saga

In addition to just covering the Olympics over 18 days beginning Feb. 6, NBC will air a new documentary to mark the 20th anniversary of one of the most bizarre and ugly moments in modern Olympics history, the attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan engineered by rival Tonya Harding, her ex-husband and her bodyguard.

ESPN is also marking the event with a "30 for 30" film, airing Nov. 5, but NBC has what ESPN couldn't get: an interview with Kerrigan, who has kept a low public profile over the years. If the networks could get away with a full schedule of event programming, they probably would, but after a while, the events wouldn't be real events anymore. So traditional programming is still needed, and NBC is hoping to build on some of its successes and improve on some of its flops.

The status of the sitcom in broadcast television has rarely been as low as it is today. They've been dropping like flies, fall season after fall season. Some shows may start out with strong reviews and ratings, only to see viewership drop off precipitously.

As Jennifer Salke, NBC's entertainment president, said Saturday, "The tolerance for a show that's struggling is shorter than it's ever been." No network has the ability to allow a struggling show time to build its audience as, for example, "Parks and Recreation" did only a few short years ago. Last season, both "Go On" and "The New Normal" started out well for NBC, only to see their ratings slide as the season wore on. Both have been canceled.

NBC's biggest sitcom hope for the fall is the return of Michael J. Fox to series TV with "The Michael J. Fox Show," about a local TV news anchor who, like Fox, has Parkinson's but isn't about to let that stop him from continuing his career. The show enters NBC's hallowed Thursday night lineup on Sept. 26, with Betsy Brandt ("Breaking Bad") playing his wife.

"I look at the reality of Parkinson's," Fox said Saturday. "Sometimes it's frustrating, sometimes it's funny," adding that everyone gets "our bag of hammers" in life and Parkinson's won't be treated as anything but Fox's character's particular bag.

Other new shows coming to NBC include "Sean Saves the World," with Sean Hayes, co-star of "Will & Grace" and co-producer of successful shows like "Hot in Cleveland" on TVLand and NBC's "Grimm," and "Welcome to the Family," about two families who have to find a way to get along when their kids start dating and the girl gets pregnant. One of the families is Latino, and that's not a coincidence. TV is woefully behind the times in representing their numbers in both dramas and sitcoms.

Strong dramas

The network has a couple of strong dramatic candidates, including a reboot of the '70s TV classic "Ironside," with Blair Underwood portraying the cop in the wheelchair played by the late Raymond Burr in the original series, and "The Blacklist," starring James Spader ("Boston Legal") as an FBI most-wanted criminal who offers to help the agency track down major criminals whose whereabouts he's kept track of on what he calls the Blacklist. The show will premiere Sept. 26, while "Ironside" moves into a Wednesday slot on Oct. 2.

David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: dwiegand@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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