NBC Seeks Next 'Blacklist' with Pilots from Tina Fey, Rob Lowe, and More

It's upfront time, when major broadcast and cable networks try to convince advertisers their slates will give them the best return on investment. 

Don't look now but NBC (a subsidiary of Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) ) may not be the punching bag for critics that it used to be. Yes, there are still a few programming moves that boggle the mind. Still, the network is shaping up to control the 10 p.m. slot in the fall Sunday through Wednesday. That's a big deal.

What worked?

Credit: NBC

First, let's rewind back to the fall because you have to understand how NBC has progressed since then. The network debuted six shows on its fall schedule, but only one is a lock to come back. Then again, only one is still even on the air. Remember how excited NBC was about The Michael J. Fox ShowIronside, and Welcome to the Family? How about Sean Saves the World and Dracula? Eventually the optimism on all five faded. After that, there was just The Blacklist.

In addition to having a plot that people could get behind and a charismatic lead in James Spader, The Blacklist had the benefit of a timeslot leading out of The Voice. Those factors led to it being the first big breakout hit of the 2013-14 season. In fact, NBC was so confident in this show that executives renewed it for a second season last December.

Basically, the network doubled-down on its one success story. You can't blame them... the show delivered.

Executives also noticed the continued success of Dick Wolf's firefighter series Chicago Fire and realized that they might have a hit on their hands with the spinoff Chicago PD. Sure enough, both of those have continued to be bright spots in the schedule. When Sunday Night Football returns in the fall, that's going to give NBC an anchor show on four nights out of the week. That's something that other networks would kill for.

The lone exceptions are Thursday and Friday nights, ironic given that NBC owned Thursday nights for most of the '90s and early 2000s. This year's inhabitant in the rotating slot that was home to ER for over a decade was Parenthood, which is critically loved and is brilliantly written, acted, and produced. Unfortunately, nobody seems to watch it.

Fridays are just as maddening because dark horse success story Grimm can't seem to support any new show, even in its own genre. While Grimm (as well as Chicago Fire and Chicago PD) was renewed earlier this year, Parenthood is still in limbo.

What's next?

Credit: NBC

Granted, it's not alone. Aside from those previously mentioned (and of course The Voice), every one of NBC's shows is on the bubble. The only other exception is Parks and Recreation, which NBC technically renewed back in January (but wouldn't confirm until March).

That means that last season's one-time hit Revolution, network staple Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and cult favorite Community are among those waiting on their fates. With SVU it comes down to money. With Community, Revolution, Hannibal, Dracula, and all of the network's midseason series, it comes down to the strength of the network's pilot slate.

Like most of its rivals, NBC handed out a few early pickups, which include Tina Fey's new untitled comedy fronted by Bridesmaids' Ellie Kemper, and Mr. Robinson starring The Office's Craig Robinson. That means that two slots come off the board right there, though NBC and ABC are the networks that generally take the most pilots of the five big broadcasters. Bill Cosby also signed a deal with NBC in January that is expected to result in a show this fall, so that goes into consideration.

The big names in NBC's pilot pool on the comedy side include Rob Lowe, Mary Louise Parker, and Kate Walsh. There's equally big talent on the drama side, including Katherine Heigl, Debra Messing, and producer McG. Some of those names are too big to pass up, and it's likely that celebs like Lowe and Heigl will see their series get green lights.

The future
In terms of network needs, it's a mixed bag. It all revolves around advertising and what executives think will sell the best on Madison Avenue. NBC is clearly better off now than it was this time last year. The success of its 10 p.m. series and the solid performance of midseason comedies About a Boy and Growing up Fisher has helped the network rebound from yet another disappointing fall slate.

Many believe that with its development pipeline and reliable core, this could finally be NBC president Robert Greenblatt's year to wow his critics. Greenblatt is smart and knows what he's doing, but his shows haven't always hit the mark. Maybe this year.

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