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Will new shows make NBC worth seeing?

By Breeanna Hare, CNN
Can't get enough of the "Law and Order" franchise? NBC can't, either. It's planning another based in Los Angeles, California.
Can't get enough of the "Law and Order" franchise? NBC can't, either. It's planning another based in Los Angeles, California.
  • NBC calls on big-time producers like J.J. Abrams, David E. Kelley for pilots
  • TV critics see this as sign that all is not lost for NBC's prime time
  • It also shows that creative community is still willing to work with network
  • But, expert said, NBC is using old model rather than creating new one

(CNN) -- Jay Leno couldn't salvage NBC's prime-time ratings. Now the network is making bets on high-profile producers to perform triage next season.

Pilots on deck include the law drama "Kindreds" from "The Practice's" David E. Kelley, which will follow an "ex-patent lawyer and a group of his misfit associates," plus a "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"-esque drama called "Undercovers" from "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams about a married couple getting back into the CIA game, according to NBC Universal.

The network has also called on the talents of star producer Jerry Bruckheimer for a Southwestern cops 'n' robbers procedural drama called "Chase," and "House" creator David Shore is committed to bringing back "The Rockford Files."

If these options appear enticing, they're also expensive -- particularly compared with five nights a week of Jay Leno's talk show.

But choosing to put Leno on five nights a week also helped NBC to stay at the bottom of the prime time barrel while angering its affiliates. It's a mistake the network obviously doesn't want to make twice.

"The truth we have to remember is that it's not like we ripped off a bunch of high-performing 10 o'clock dramas to put 'Jay Leno' on," NBC Universal's president of prime time entertainment, Angela Bromstad, said Sunday at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California.

And, she added, the network is still collecting scripts. There was a silver lining to having "The Jay Leno Show" at 10 p.m., Bromstad said, because it gave NBC some time to build its drama cache from the ground up.

"They're showing some serious goodwill towards developing good dramas," Diane Gordon, editor of the Surf Report and former TV Week contributor, said.

"When they're making deals with people like that, those people don't come cheap," Gordon said, pointing to "Sex and the City" writer and Executive Producer Cindy Chupack, currently signed to do an hourlong comedy for the network called "Love Bites."

Aside from proving that it is willing to pay to play, NBC's pilot choices show that it hasn't become blacklisted among Hollywood's creatives.

"The announcements they made are the best they could've possibly done, because supposedly, once they announced the 'Leno Show,' the creative community was going to be up in arms, which clearly isn't the case," said TV Guide's executive editor, Craig Tomashoff.

But not everything on NBC's plate is shiny and new. In addition to adding bankable producers to its roster, the network is once again knocking on Dick Wolf's door with talks of another "Law & Order" spinoff, this time based in Los Angeles, California. It may be a fresh location but certainly not a fresh concept.

Yet, said Variety's assistant managing editor, Stuart Levine, "you could say that about 'Lost': How'd that sustain itself for five years? You could say that 'Law & Order' is stale, but it's been on for 14, 15 years now, and it's been successful."

And although none of NBC's offerings can be called revolutionary, "hospital dramas and cop dramas have been a staple of television for 50 years. [Success] depends on the execution," he added.

Staying on the safe side may actually pay off for the network, especially when its attempts at high concept only made ratings sag even more. (The reworked "Knight Rider," anyone?)

"[Former Co-chairman of NBC Universal Entertainment] Ben Silverman was extraordinarily good at high concept [pitches], not so good at storytelling," Gordon said. "The problem is that high concept doesn't always work for television. You have to give viewers characters they want to spend time with every week."

And in the past, there was still that pesky question of investment. "They had some really terrible projects," Levine said, because the network "went for some cheap choices. They developed a lot with their own studio, and that's cheaper than buying a show from someone else."

NBC is ready to spend millions now, and while MediaPost Editor Wayne Friedman thinks the network is crazy for doing so, he acknowledges that "NBC has got to do well by the short-term standard."

In other words, it needs to get back into the age-old business of network television: create pilots for May, have dead air in the summer -- thereby allowing cable channels to have huge hits with viewers -- and then roll out new shows in September, hoping one of them won't tank.

"I looked at the [pilot] list, and I shrugged my shoulders," Friedman said. "I'd give them bigger credit if they came up with another model of how it could work." Great pilots, he cautions, don't always mean great series.

Do you think NBC can make a comeback?

Friedman is also unconvinced that Abrams, Kelley and Bruckheimer are paid-in-full rides to better ratings.

"The odds are that [NBC is] not going to get lucky," Friedman said. "If there's a 90 percent failure rate on TV, you can put out [10] shows, but only one will succeed."

But, Levine notes, one hit is really all NBC needs, even post-"Leno effect."

"If you've got one that works, you just need that one to start," he said. "ABC was in the doldrums before they launched 'Desperate Housewives' and 'Lost.' It just takes one to turn it around, and then you can build off that."

Certainly, no one can predict whether that one hit lies within the network's current crop of pilots, but the general direction is looking up -- if only because it'd be difficult for NBC to go any lower.

"They can't go much farther down [in ratings]," Levine added. "They hit rock bottom when they gave up at 10 p.m. Any numbers that the 10 p.m. get will be better than Jay's numbers."

But what if, as Friedman speculates, the expensive star power of Bruckheimer and the other producers still doesn't pull NBC out of its rut?

"They'll be offering positions to my 12-year-old son," Tomashoff joked. "One more year of being on the bottom -- if the shows are bad, and the ratings don't follow -- I don't know where they can go after that."