NEW YORK -- In a time long removed from Michael Scott and must-see TV, NBC is hoping Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes can help fill its Thursday night comedy void.
The network on Monday unveiled its programming for the year ahead during its annual upfront presentation at Radio City Music Hall, starting with an overhaul of its once-vaunted Thursday night comedy bloc, coupled with several genre-tinged dramas and an emphasis of nonscripted programming such as sports and late-night talk.
The network is seeking to climb out of a prime-time ratings hole that saw it finish in the basement during February sweeps, behind even Spanish-language Univision, negating a strong autumn that saw it win nearly all of the 15 weeks of new programming.
"It was a bit of a roller-coaster season for us, but I think we ultimately made really good progress," NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt told the reporters and advertisers in the theater.
In a bid to climb back this fall, the network plans to premiere three new Thursday comedies -- "Welcome to the Family," Hayes' "Sean Saves The World" and "The Michael J. Fox Show" -- beginning at 8:30 p.m. (A fourth comedy, returning niche favorite "Parks & Recreation," will receive a new time slot at 8 p.m.; cult favorite "Community" will come back for 13 episodes but not until the middle of the season.)
In his multi-camera sitcom, Hayes plays a gay divorced dad who is trying to parent his adolescent daughter with the unwanted help of his sharp-tongued mother (Linda Lavin). Fox, returning to a regular series role for the first time since "Spin City," riffs off a version of himself as newscaster Mike Henry, a man with Parkinson's disease who goes back to work.
The shows follow "Welcome to the Family," a culture-clash comedy about white and Latino families thrust together when their teenage children become a couple and the girl finds out she’s pregnant.
"We think the audience is ready for something uplifting," said NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke, explaining executives' thinking behind the family theme, which NBC will double down on by moving the modestly viewed but critically admired "Parenthood" to 10 p.m.
On the dramatic side, the strongest response came for "The Blacklist,” a show starring James Spader as one of the FBI's most-wanted who turns himself in but, in providing information about wanted terrorists, will only talk to a newbie FBI agent. In its cat-and-mouse game between a refined murderer and a young female FBI agent, the show is likely to evoke comparisons to “The Silence of the Lambs.”
The network is to premiere the series behind the juggernaut that is "The Voice" on Monday nights. Executives hope that sophomore series "Chicago Fire" -- which will give birth to an as-yet-unscheduled spinoff titled "Chicago PD" -- will also benefit from a “Voice” lead-in on Tuesday nights.
Post-apocalyptic hit "Revolution, which previously benefited from the strong lead of the singing competition show on Mondays, will move to Wednesday, where at 8 p.m. it will anchor a bloc that includes long-running procedural "Law & Order: SVU" as well as the new "Ironside," a reboot of the detective-in-a-wheelchair show starring Blair Underwood.
"For those of you who remember Raymond Burr as a detective in his wheelchair on the late 1960s, you can forget all about it," Salke said, citing this version as featuring an "edgy detective."
Other fall hourlongs include a limited-run "Dracula" starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as the Bram Stoker creation. The network plans to air it on Fridays at 10 p.m. behind fairy-tale show “Grimm,” seeking to capture younger viewers that have long eluded the broadcast networks on Fridays.
For midseason, the network plans to offer two new Tuesday comedies to compete against Fox’s strong comedy bloc. They include “About a Boy,” a new take on the Nick Hornby book about a man-child and the precocious boy he befriends, and “The Family Guide,” a comedy about a blind man, played by J.K. Simmons.
Generating perhaps the most anticipation for NBC’s midseason schedule is its Sunday bloc, with kidnapped-kids drama “Crisis” and the latest J.J. Abrams TV creation, "Believe," about a young girl with possible supernatural powers. “Believe” was among the better-received promos at the network's presentation.
NBC has the benefit of the Sochi Olympics for its midseason programming, essentially creating a second launch pad.
Other shows that were touted include competition series such as the Jane Lynch-hosted "Hollywood Game Night" and the real-time audience-participation "Million Dollar Quiz," as well as yet-unscheduled dramas, including the "ER-meets-Scrubs" hourlong "The Night Shift," set at a Texas hospital, and, speaking of "Scrubs," the new Bill Lawrence comedy "Undateable," about a group of schlubs who try to become Lotharios.
NBC executives at Radio City also offered details on the handoff of "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon in early 2014. Leno's last week will be the first week of Sochi Olympics, with Fallon taking over during the second week, the network announced.
"We owe a great debt of gratitude to Leno," Greenblatt said, seeking to tamp down controversy after the comedian has been taking pokes at his employer the past several months. "He's always been a gentleman and a great supporter of this network."
In a bid to reassure that this time the switch at the "Tonight Show" was peaceful and permanent, a video presentation then had Fallon singing a Les Miserables parody titled "Eight Months More" with Leno joining with "I dreamed a dream I left 'Tonight' ... 20 years is long enough."
On the sports side, the network touted its Olympics coverage with plenty of shots of Shaun White and other snow-happy athletes; 380 Premiere League soccer games (including online), which sports chief Mark Lazarus said exceeded even the number of matches shown in Britain; as well as the crown jewel, "Sunday Night Football," which is set to premiere Sept. 5 with the Denver Broncos versus the Baltimore Ravens, a rematch of last year’s playoff contest.
Reaction to the network's presentation was generally subdued, with several exceptions: Promos for the Olympics and "Blacklist" elicited the more enthusiastic responses.
New (and now canceled shows) including "Go On," "The New Normal" and "Do No Harm" were among those responsible for the network's poor performance in the latter stages of the 2012-2013 season. Greenblatt sought to put a happy face on the numbers: On the bright side, he noted, despite the low numbers, NBC was the only one of the four major networks not to show viewership declines this year compared with last year.