Shock of the New
NBC's brash entertainment chief Kevin Reilly inherited a lineup losing Friends and Frasier. He still has a stable of hits, but they aren't enough to stay on top. The network's future: cutting-edge fare.
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/21/2004 7:00:00 PM
How do you program risk into NBC's DNA? Hire Kevin Reilly. He refuses to play it safe. The man who aired breakthrough series like The Shield when he ran FX has created NBC's edgiest development slate in years.
How did he manage that? He looked beyond the usual suspects, tapping some talented rookies and even a novelist from India. Sound insane? Doomed to fail? That's what some voices among the old guard in Hollywood have muttered. But the freshman NBC Entertainment president begs to differ. Loudly.
He won't censor talent or cave to ad-friendly concerns. "That's where a lot of shows fall short," he says. "They go for the trite, safe way out.
How are we going to take on American Idol with a milquetoast show?"
Reilly promises big changes, starting with Father of the Pride, a bold, Shrek-like animated comedy that's going to cost a bundle. Sure, he inherited stuff like Friends spinoff Joey and a fourth take on Law & Order. After all, you don't change the colors of Peacock's feathers in a day. But what carries Reilly's stamp are projects like off-kilter comedies The Friendlys, set in a chocolate factory, and D.O.T.S., about the hidden lives of meter maids. Hey, you didn't think a show about crazed Miami plastic surgeons would work either. Then Reilly proved you wrong with Nip/Tuck.
"Kevin has amazing taste," says Robin Schwartz, president of Regency Television. "He finds stuff that other people passed on, and he grabs it."
Reilly believes in cutting close to the nerve—comedy or drama. "The most exciting time," he admits, "is when you've got a show that you are a little scared of."
Six months into his tenure, he nabbed Robb and Mark Cullen for The Friendlys. They are the team who did the acclaimed but ill-fated Lucky for FX. Reilly also grabbed Anjay Sahgal, an East Indian novelist and TV novice for Nevermind Nirvana, and signed Coupling actor Chris Moynihan, the creator of Foster Hall.
It's not as outrageous as it sounds. Bernie Brillstein, co-founder of Brillstein-Grey TV, is repping the Cullens' effort, a show he calls "strange and wonderful," and Conan O'Brien is pulling executive-producer duties for Foster Hall.
"There's a tendency to go to people who have really developed the TV writing craft, but you can get burned," Reilly admits. "The management part, the collaboration of getting input from stars and networks-to process all that and maintain your voice is very rare. Still," he adds, "that first-timer may turn out to be Larry David."
He's banking on it.
The Friendlys, about a young woman who inherits her father's chocolate factory, stars Julie Bowen of Ed fame. Nevermind Nirvana, with a cast of unknowns, is about an extended East Indian family learning to cope when one of their own marries an outsider.
Then again, Reilly has a reputation for edgy, though the 42-year-old Cornell grad and father of three, doesn't wear it on his sleeve. "It's safer being risky, particularly in this day and age," he says. But he's also paying it smart, buttressing his out-on-a-limb fare with proven pros.
HUB, an airport drama, features TV perennial Heather Locklear. My 11:30, executive-produced by Mad About You's Paul Reiser, Jeff Goldblum plays a playboy businessman (along the lines of NBC's newest star, Donald Trump) who keeps a weekly appointment with his therapist. In another first for NBC, Rob Reiner is executive-producing Everyday Life, a show about a family of psychotherapists that will be partially improvised.
"You can be clean-cut and have a great sense of humor and like the bizarre a little bit. You don't have to be a crazy person to understand comedy," says Brillstein, who worked with Reilly when Reilly was president of Brillstein-Grey Television.
Hitting the prime time jackpot is always a gamble. Even though NBC is probably every agent's first stop in town. This year, though, Reilly wasn't biting. "During the buying cycle, a lot of things felt like retreads. But through all of that, I think we've managed to come up with a good slate."
It's a skill he attributes, in part, to his mentor, Brandon Tartikoff, who, he says, "believed in going against the pack."
Tartikoff, who hired Reilly away from Universal as manager of creative affairs, later upped him to vice president of drama development. In those halcyon days at NBC (1988-94), he worked on the development of such shows as Just Shoot Me, ER, Homicide, and Law & Order.
In recent years, NBC has focused on either adult-driven shows—à la Friends—or family shows—Happy Family, The Tracy Morgan Show—and neither approach has really clicked. This year, there's no real trend, observers say, just an eclectic mix of shows.
The two most-known commodities on the slate of 15 pilots is Joey, starring Matt LeBlanc, and a remake of The Office. The pilot script for Joey just came in two weeks ago, Reilly says, and so far so good. The Office is sure to be scrutinized: NBC tried to adapt the BBC's Coupling last year, and it was the highest-profile failure of the season.
All eyes will be on DreamWorks' Father of the Pride, the first computer-generated-imagery (CGI) TV show. NBC has pinned its hopes on John Goodman and Cheryl Hines as married white lions in Las Vegas. Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment, News and Cable, placed the order to DreamWorks' head Jeffrey Katzenberg after seeing the studio's feature Shrek.
To get DreamWorks to produce the show, NBC had to pay for 13 episodes upfront and will have to commit to the next nine episodes early on. The show is rumored to be the most expensive sitcom in history, requiring a team of 300 animators in Hong Kong.
"If Father of the Pride fails, at least they will go down with some class," says one agent. "It's not going to be like the Emeril debacle."
"They are definitely spending more so they have a broader spectrum of shows," says Ted Miller, senior agent at Creative Artists Agency. "They are taking chances, and their slate is more eclectic than the other networks'."
Call it the Reilly touch. "Risk-taking begins in the development process. Whether it's a Seinfeld, putting on a show with two gay men, or portraying realism like an ER, NBC historically is comfortable with it," he says. "The number-one thing I believe in as a programmer is integrity."
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