When NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly laid out the network's midseason schedule last week, somewhere the late Brandon Tartikoff was smiling. The entertainment chief during NBC's golden years in the 1980s, he would have approved of Reilly's decision to give full-season orders to 30 Rock, Friday Night Lights and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
That commitment to critically rich yet ratings-challenged series was a hallmark of the Tartikoff era, when the network nurtured shows like Hill Street Blues, Cheers and Seinfeld from the brink of cancellation into a powerhouse lineup of quality primetime programs.
Unfortunately for Reilly, these are radically different times, both within and without NBC.
Before joining the network, Reilly made his bones at FX, where he worked under Peter Liguori and helped put that network on the map with terrific, edgy series like The Shield and Nip/Tuck. But since he took charge in Burbank, he has lived with a target painted on his back.
His predecessor, NBC Universal TV Group CEO Jeff Zucker, had left primetime in rough shape, developing nary a hit to bolster an aging lineup of shows. His sharp elbows rankled the production community's old-boy network, and word got around that NBC was no longer the place for developing singular programming.
Even with his FX pedigree, Reilly had his work cut out for him trying to convince Hollywood that NBC was open to risky, first-rate scripted stuff beyond police-procedural rehashes and over-the-top reality series.
He's finally starting to get some traction this season. After standing by The Office and My Name Is Earl, which were part of his first development slate last year, both have become moderate hits. The rookie drama Heroes is arguably the only watercooler show of the new season. And Sunday Night Football, while expensive at $600 million, has not only played a big part in the network's 15% rise in the 18-49 demo this November sweeps, it has also given Reilly a much-needed platform for plugging the rest of his lineup.
I hope he celebrated when he had the chance.
Last month, Zucker and NBCU Chairman/CEO Bob Wright didn't help him any with their pledges to abandon scripted series in the 8 p.m. hour in the name of cost cutting. After weeks of turmoil within the NBCU corporate suites, the long knives seemed to be out for Reilly.
The day before he unveiled his midseason moves, the Los Angeles Times reported that Reilly was about to be layered by Jeff Gaspin, the head of NBCU's cable entertainment channels and digital programming, who might be on his way to overseeing all of the company's TV content.
It's hard to find anyone who thinks any of these changes at NBCU bode well for Reilly's future at the network.
This may be wishful thinking on my part, but Zucker and company might be onto something by positioning Gaspin, notably credited for such cheesy hits as The Apprentice and Deal or No Deal, as a counterbalance to Reilly's more urbane tastes.
Hey, even Tartikoff scored with schlock like The A-Team and Unsolved Mysteries. The Peacock has to be in the business of mass as well as class.
No doubt, Reilly knows he's staking his job on his blue-chip bet. But in the long run, I'd put money on his coming out top, whether or not he stays at NBC.
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