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This Fall's NBC: Not Being Creative

by Diane Werts July 22, 2008 9:15 am
This Fall's NBC: Not Being Creative

NBC might actually have some interesting new shows this fall. Operative word there being "might." Because critics haven't seen them yet. During the network's two fall-preview days closing out this summer's Television Critics Association press tour, we did see:
A Scene It?-styled DVD game built around clips from The Office. A two-sided Heroes bobblehead doll with present-day Hiro on the front of its head and future Hiro on the back. A Battlestar Galactica toaster that imprints Cylon centurion helmets on your white bread. ("Toaster." Slang for Cylons. Get it?)

All of it was cool merchandise, promoted in colorful booths like some giddy TV carnival at the back of the L.A. hotel ballroom where NBC's Q&A panels kept coming at critics by the dozen daily.

But when you see tons of information in front of you about Office guy Dwight's presence in a DVD board game -- and almost none about which to ask Christian Slater something smart about his first-time series My Own Worst Enemy -- it's kinda hard to get psyched about what's coming on NBC TV this fall.

Slater's half-hour session was overwhelmingly occupied not by the celebrated Heathers star riffing on his character, but instead by the producers of the show trying to explain the show's basic plot, to a roomful of people who have to write about the spy adventure/character study without seeing it. Seems Slater plays an everyday family man named Henry who doesn't realize he has this alter ego named Edward who's a super-dude secret agent. There's an implant in his brain that switches him into hero mode when needed by whomever (government? agency?), but suddenly the implant malfunctions and the two sides start to merge and end up fighting each other for control. And one half is right-handed, and one half's left-handed, and really, who cares if you don't know whether either half is worth watching?

No pilot episodes were previewed so critics could ask intelligently about casting or tone or production values during show sessions, because NBC has decided to go directly to series with the concepts it buys. So, no pilot to see for the new American version of the Australian comedy Kath & Kim (seen here on Trio and Sundance), starring Molly Shannon as the still-thinks-she's-young mother and Selma Blair as her juvenile divorcing-after-six-weeks daughter. Nothing to see of the new series revival of the '80s superhero-car romp Knight Rider, which producers told us in their show's session has been completely rethought from February's TV movie return. Which they told us and told us and told us for a half-hour, because we couldn't see it, see it, see it.

Now, granted, the writers strike played havoc with the traditional fall development/production cycle. But NBC's presentation marched on like one big marketing machine -- as if the shiny surface of TV entertainment has worn through to reveal that underneath it's just a greasy commerce cog in some corporate apparatus. In our heart of hearts, we already know that. But who wants in-your-face proof?

The Q&A session with NBC's "co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios" -- their titles alone makes you wonder whether this is still show business or just some MBA industry -- found Ben Silverman and Marc Graboff prattling on about advertising possibilities and "research metrics." Which I know is what provides us free over-the-air programs, but is not something viewers give a crap about. Maybe reporters who cover TV do, but tell me how to make people not glaze over at this Silverman quote about manufacturing sausage for advertisers: "How does this entertainment vehicle match up to this brand's initiative? And how do they leverage the access to this entertainment brand and the distribution and exposure we can give it across our channels and where we push it?"

Wait a minute. I thought you people created TV Shows! Research metrics don't mean diddly if we're too bored with a series to watch it, much less its ads or product placement. Oops, Graboff says NBC execs "don't even like calling it product integration. What we're trying to do here is integrated marketing."

Marketing, schmarketing -- give us cool shows!

Silverman made sure to say "we're excited about the creative mojo of TV," even if that excitement was less than evident, or evidenced. He did announce that Saturday Night Live's Amy Poehler has signed to star in a Thursday prime-time comedy to be created by Office producers Greg Daniels and Mike Schur. ("But this is not a spinoff," Silverman said of the planned spring arrival. The actual Office spinoff will come after that.) He also said Jimmy Fallon's new late-night show -- replacing Conan O'Brien, who will be replacing Jay Leno -- will start on NBC in March or April, after first launching on the internet as a nightly series of short streams to test what works for Fallon before he hits living room screens. Conan's first Tonight Show will be June 1, he said, after Leno's last one May 29. (Jay's subsequent destination: TBA.) Silverman said the planned Heroes prequel/placeholder Origins, intended to air last season during the show's winter hiatus, is now unlikely to be produced -- "a casualty of the strike."

The only time finances made critics sit up and pay attention was when Graboff talked about NBC's deal to renew Friday Night Lights in partnership with DirecTV, premiering new third-season episodes first on satellite and later on network TV. "We tried to find alternate ways to finance the show and get it exposure at the same time," Graboff said, after FNL drew "too narrow of an audience for a broadcast network to justify keeping it on the air." It's such an attention-getter for DirecTV that they'll throw more marketing dollars at it than big-busy-network NBC is able to.

Now that's nice. Friday Night Lights is a truly original series. Dare we say it, a quality show. You know -- like NBC used to specialize in. This year's fall newbies are led by a reincarnation of a Reagan-era hit (Knight Rider), which wasn't even such a biggie the first time (and which stars, for cripes' sakes, a car!), along with one more Americanization of a foreign show (Kath and Kim, continuing Silverman's previous forte as an producer-importer of Coupling, Ugly Betty, The Office, et al). And then there's Slater's show, which seems to be arriving as a descendant of Heroes, if not a knockoff.

Really, critics were not seeing any NBC mojo. They were seeing copycat-ism, cut corners and failure of imagination. Silverman actually said this: "It's a page from the movie industry. You know, looking at last summer, you saw every single movie was derivative. It was either a theme park ride, like Pirates of the Caribbean, or a toy, like Transformers, or a comic book, like Spider-Man, and they were all one, two, three or four in a series of films. There's something to the pre-sold awareness of those brands that really helps you generate momentum and draw in people who may be not willing to take a risk on something new."

But he's talking to a roomful of TV critics who think that's what CBS is for. We don't want same-old same-old from NBC, the historic home of freshness from Hill Street Blues to L.A. Law to Seinfeld to ER (yes, it was fresh once) to My Name Is Earl, 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights. "We want innovative programs," Silverman continued. "We believe, personally, that television is the most creative medium by far."

Us, too. Now, please, guys. Prove it.

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