NBC got a jump start on its competitors Wednesday, unveiling a 2008-09 prime-time lineup that leans heavily on heroic tropes and classic tales of adventure.
Six weeks before the four other television broadcast networks roll out their schedules, NBC said it was picking up 12 new shows, including dramas based on the stories of King David, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robinson Crusoe, Merlin and the 1980s series "Knight Rider."
FOR THE RECORD:
Television lineup: An article in Thursday's Business section about NBC's upcoming TV programs gave an incorrect title for a series based on the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is called "My Own Worst Enemy," not "My Worst Enemy." —
"The audience is returning to the familiar right now," said Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, during a presentation at Rockefeller Center. "They like the accessible themes. . . . But these are wholly original takes."
The peacock network's schedule offered a glimpse of the contours of the upcoming television season, which will probably be marked by a scattering of premieres throughout the year rather than a front-loaded fall schedule. The shift accelerates a trend that began several years ago at Fox, which successfully rolled out programs such us "American Idol" and "24" mid-season.
NBC presented a 65-week schedule through the summer of 2009 on Wednesday, more than a month before the traditional "upfront" network presentations to media buyers in New York. Executives said the early unveiling was aimed at giving advertisers more time to plan their buying strategies.
NBC laid out a theme for each hour of prime time -- family shows at 8 p.m., action series at 9 p.m. and adult dramas at 10 p.m. The network plans to air four new shows every quarter, an approach that will help it avoid repeats at 10 p.m. most days of the week, network executives said.
The fall offerings include the Jekyll and Hyde drama "My Worst Enemy," starring Christian Slater. Later in the year, NBC will unveil a spinoff of "The Office."
Among the network's 16 returning shows will be "Friday Night Lights," which will be back for its third season through a deal with DirectTV Group Inc., whose subscribers will get the first look when the show airs in the fall on a special channel on the satellite TV service. The 13-episode season will air on NBC in the winter.
NBC executives said this spring's strike-curtailed pilot season didn't hinder their ability to develop new shows because they had already begun ordering programs straight to series.
It's a strategy that's been widely embraced this spring, largely because the writers strike left little time for scripts to be written, much less produced. Just 63 pilots -- 39 dramas and 24 comedies -- are in the works, compared with 112 last year and 120 in 2006.
Some industry veterans hope this season's streamlined approach will persuade networks to forgo the pilot process. The test episodes can cost millions, setting a standard that cannot be sustained throughout the series. (This season, Fox reportedly is spending the most on a pilot: $10 million for a two-hour episode of "Fringe" by J.J. Abrams.) Less than half the pilots made in recent years were picked up as series, and a small fraction became hits.
"We throw away 90% of our research and development -- any other industry would shut down," said Tom Fontana, executive producer of "The Philanthropist," which NBC ordered without a pilot.
Joss Whedon's new Fox show, "Dollhouse," was ordered to series without a first draft. The writer-director said that it might be too soon to expect a complete remaking of the development cycle but added that "the strike was the crisis that will nudge the community toward adapting."
Some believe that year-round development will become the norm, but Suzanne Patmore Gibbs, executive vice president of drama development at ABC, thinks the industry will revert back to the traditional calendar next year.
"Even though it was a dysfunctional system, it worked in large part," she said. "I think there is a merit to a cycle and deadlines and looking at things in some sort of context with one another."
Because many pilots won't be completed in time for upfront week this year, the historically lavish presentations are expected to be less extravagant and more succinct.
CBS has opted to make abbreviated presentations instead of showing pilots for five of its 15 potential new series, executives said.
The CW will showcase its three dramas through presentations as well and make additional pilots this summer for mid-season shows.
"Instead of everybody doing everything at once and everybody competing for the same directors and the same talent, we're doing it into two phases," CW Entertainment President Dawn Ostroff said.
ABC, which has already renewed 14 series for the fall, may not include new shows on its September lineup because of the lack of time to evaluate the 17 projects it has in development, network executives said.
Top-rated Fox is investing heavily in projects by writer-producers such as Shawn Ryan, Ryan Murphy and Brian Grazer but will probably include only two hours of new shows in its fall lineup, Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said. Midseason, the network will use big guns such as "American Idol" and "24" to promote other series.