Kevin Reilly gambled his job on his own "Office" pool.
Last year, Reilly, NBC's entertainment president, decided to renew "The Office," a corporate satire featuring "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" star Steve Carell, despite first-season ratings so low they made the rest of the network's tottering schedule look good by comparison. Reilly's move drew disbelief and even derision from skeptics inside and outside the company. Why was NBC, which desperately needed hit shows, wasting time with a show that viewers had obviously rejected?
Reilly, whose job status has been the subject of whispered speculation on the Hollywood rumor mill for months, admitted that his loyalty to "The Office" wasn't appreciated by some colleagues at NBC. "I would have felt exposed, personally and professionally, if this had not worked," he said in an interview last week.
Luckily for Reilly, "The Office" has, over the last few weeks, turned into a ray of hope for the fourth-ranked network. Since the start of this year, its average ratings have jumped 69%, to 9.1 million total viewers, compared with last spring, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. What's more, the series is catching on among the affluent young-adult viewers who've made up the core of NBC's audience for decades.
"I always thought this was the classic NBC-type of show," said executive producer Greg Daniels, a former writer for "Seinfeld" and "Saturday Night Live." "I don't know if [network executives] thought that last year," he added with a laugh, "but they do now."
Last week, in a measure of popularity often cited by TV executives, the program kept a record-high 92% of the viewers ages 18 to 49 who watched "My Name Is Earl," TV's No. 1 new comedy this season.
As Steve Sternberg, who analyzes programming for New York-based ad giant Magna Global, points out, "The Office" "appeals to the under-35 audience," while its major competition, CBS' smash "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," tends to attract somewhat older viewers.
How did a show that looked moribund in May get so hot in January? In addition to Reilly's protective wing, the producers caught some lucky breaks from a hit summer movie, a gutsy scheduling play and even the ubiquitous iPod.
Perhaps most important, the NBC show has gradually carved out an identity apart from the successful series that inspired it. "The Office" is adapted from the BBC program of the same name, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Gervais starred as David Brent, a pathetically inept middle manager at a London-area paper company whose subordinates are alternately bored and mortified by his antics, which are captured on tape by documentary filmmakers. The American version has Carell playing Michael Scott, the feckless boss at a paper company in Scranton, Pa.
Network executives have often looked overseas for inspiration. CBS' groundbreaking "All in the Family," for example, derived from the 1966-1975 BBC series "Til Death Us Do Part." But NBC's recent experience with English imports had been grim. In 2003, "Coupling," an Americanized version of the randy British sitcom, was savaged by critics and lasted only four airings. NBC also had big plans for an adaptation of "The Kumars at No. 42," a popular mock talk-show on BBC2, but the project never got off the ground.
Idea crosses the pond
"The Office" presented some hurdles of its own, because the British version had become well known among many TV fans thanks to a successful run on the cable outlet BBC America (Gervais even won a 2004 Golden Globe for his performance, further raising the show's profile). Early on, the American producers decided to keep many of the British version's memorable touches, including the absence of a laugh track and the trick of having the characters tell their stories to documentary filmmakers. But comparisons were inevitable, and the website tvsquad.com runs a lengthy discussion board arguing the merits of each version.
The American producers eventually realized that many viewers were put off by the funny-but-pathetic tone that prevailed in the BBC series -- in one famously brutal scene, David pretends to fire his secretary, who is not in on the joke and promptly bursts into tears. So this season the NBC writers have added more upbeat plot developments, such as occasionally revealing Michael's (limited) competence. "I think Americans need a little bit more hope than the British," Reilly said diplomatically.
"The 40 Year-Old Virgin," meanwhile, grossed more than $100 million at the U.S. box office and turned Carell into a movie star. (His work on the upcoming "Evan Almighty," a sequel to "Bruce Almighty," means the second season of "The Office" will end in late March).
A deal to sell episodes on Apple's iTunes website for $1.99 apiece has increased awareness among a critical audience segment: college-age viewers. On Monday, last week's episode -- in which someone mysteriously soiled Michael's office carpet -- was the No. 2-selling TV program on iTunes. "The last time I was in New York, I had three different people come up to me and go, 'Dude, you're on my iPod,' " costar Rainn Wilson, who has developed a strong fan base as the arrogant dweeb Dwight, told reporters earlier this month.
But maybe what helped "The Office" most of all was a move early this month from Tuesdays to Thursdays, where it's helping revive NBC's fortunes on a night the network had traditionally dominated. On the one hand, the switch enabled the show to escape Fox's monster hit "American Idol," which has returned this winter stronger than ever.
But the Thursday maneuver also reinforced NBC's growing confidence in the show. Reilly is already comparing the show to another quintessential urban comedy that tested unimpressively with preview audiences and was slow to gain traction. Everyone knows how that story ended.
"My dream," he said optimistically, "is that this is another 'Seinfeld.' "