Upfronts 2015: NBC emphasizes action, live shows, sports ... and Dolly!

NBC's Bob Greenblatt and Dolly Parton: Most unexpected upfronts duo ever?

At its upfront presentation Monday at Radio City Music Hall, NBC showcased the most exciting talent from its upcoming 2015-16 season, including Neil Patrick Harris, Dolly Parton and ... Bob Greenblatt?

In a performance that ought to earn him some sort of medal for extraordinary act of valor by a network executive, the NBC Entertainment chairman accompanied Parton on the piano as she sang her power ballad, "I Will Always Love You." The perky country star, who is partnering with NBC on a series of family-friendly TV movies, drove the assembled crowd of advertisers and media buyers to a standing ovation. 

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Whether they will be as excited about the network's schedule remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that NBC executives were trying their hardest to drum up enthusiasm for their lineup of live entertainment, event programming and action-heavy dramas.

After a bloody season that saw NBC eke out a win in the 18-to-49 demographic despite the fact that just one freshman scripted series, the Debra Messing vehicle "The Mysteries of Laura,"  earned a renewal, Greenblatt acknowledged that the network had "some ups and downs." 

Unlike in recent years, when NBC seemed content to let its talent remain in the audience at the upfront presentation, on Monday the network was more determined to leverage its star power.

There was Parton, who also sang her hit "Coat of Many Colors" (also the name of NBC's first Parton-themed TV movie) while clad in -- what else? -- a rainbow-hued rhinestone mini-dress.

There was "Tonight Show" host and late-night ratings leader Jimmy Fallon, who did a short set poking fun of the network's mixed performance last season.

And there was Neil Patrick Harris, who teased his upcoming live variety/comedy series "Best Time Ever" by pulling an elaborate prank on a prominent media buyer in the audience.

Throughout the presentation, the network seemed keen to highlight its live, DVR-proof programming -- including sports. Swimmer Michael Phelps, a would-be protagonist of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, made an appearance onstage, as did NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson.

Of course, not everything in prime time can be live, and NBC also seemed to be pushing into bigger, flashier, more action-packed scripted shows.

In the fall, the network is ditching comedy almost entirely (except for one hour on Friday nights) and emphasizing cinematic dramas. It has given the coveted post-"Voice" time slot to "Blindspot," a thriller about a woman with no memory of her past and a body covered with tattoos who is discovered (alive) in a duffel bag in Times Square.

Another favorite appears to be "Heartbreaker," starring Melissa George as a female heart surgeon, which is set to air on Tuesday nights.

Abandoning comedy altogether on Thursday nights, NBC is instead sandwiching its hit "The Blacklist" between two big, tentpole-inspired dramas. At 8 p.m. is the sci-fi reboot "Heroes Reborn," and at 10 p.m. is "The Player," a Las Vegas-set shoot-'em-up starring Wesley Snipes as a casino pit boss.

At midseason, there's even more. A preview for "Chicago Med," the latest Chicago-set drama from Dick Wolf, promised explosions and Ebola; "Shades of Blue" is a morally ambiguous cop show starring Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta; and "Game of Silence" is a revenge tale about a group of friends united by a tragic accident in their past, a la "I Know What You Did Last Summer."

Not that comedy is totally out at the onetime home of "Cheers," "Seinfeld" and "Friends." Friday nights will bring an all-live season of "Undateable" and the new multi-camera comedy "People Are Talking," which appears to be following the model set by ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat" and "blackish" by taking a humorous look at issues of race and identity.

At midseason, the network will debut "Superstore," a workplace comedy starring America Ferrera as a clerk at a Wal-Mart-like retailer; "Coach," a revival of the college football sitcom starring Craig T. Nelson; and "Hot & Bothered," with Eva Longoria as a telenovela star.

As it is expected to do all week -- thanks to the success of shows like "Empire" -- diversity played a major role in NBC's presentation Monday, as Greenblatt plugged the upcoming miniseries "The Reaper," based on the true story of an African American sniper in Afghanistan, and "The Wiz," a live staging of the Broadway musical. 

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