By Ronald Grover
Forget what the calendar says. You know it's spring when the networks pull out all the stops for the upfront season -- their annual ritual of hyping shows for next fall while selling the bulk of their future ad-time inventories.
And judging by the wingding that NBC threw for advertisers on Mar. 25, spring has sprung at the Peacock network. There was The Apprentice Chief Firing Officer Donald Trump playing to the crowd, and a cameo from Sylvester Stallone, who's developing a boxing-themed reality show for the network. Friends star Mathew LeBlanc dropped by, as did the cast of Crossing Jordan. James Caan and the rest of the gang from Las Vegas, one of NBC's few new bona fide hits, put in an appearance.
The shindig was held on Las Vegas' casino set, and the symbolism couldn't have been lost on anyone. With all the networks under fire for losing some of their most prized viewers -- namely, younger males -- they're betting like never before that their hot new shows will reverse that trend. And the stakes are higher for NBC, which is owned by GE (GE ), than for any other network. It's gambling that it can keep advertisers -- and viewers -- happy even though it's losing Friends in May. The hugely popular sitcom has been a big money-maker for the network, occupying the key Thursday night lead-off spot for much of its 10-season run.
Jeff Zucker, the hyperbolic president of NBC Entertainment, evinced a gambler's optimism as he took the stage in front of all those blinking slot machines on the Las Vegas set. "Today we are in far better shape than we were just two months ago, with few real holes to fill and several projects we are really excited about," he enthused.
That may be, yet for all of his excitement about NBC's prospects, Zucker never answered the big question: Which show will fill the much-coveted 8 p.m. spot on Thursdays? That slot is crucial because that's the night when network viewership is usually highest. And the right show -- such as Friends, Cheers or Seinfeld -- can lure viewers to NBC for the night. Big, demographically desirable audiences translate into big advertising bucks.
Is there another show with the appeal of The Apprentice?
As of now, the lead candidate to replace Friends, according to at least some network executives, is Joey, the Mathew LeBlanc spin-off, but no one has even seen a foot of film on it. Thursday, Zucker says, is "wide open."
That's not exactly true. The rest of the Thursday night lineup looks to be falling into shape. ER, like Friends, a Thursday night perennial, will be back to bat cleanup at 10 p.m. The Apprentice, in which Trump fires a different wanna-be mogul each week, will be back at 9 p.m. for a full season. That looks like a smart move. The Apprentice has improved NBC's Thursday night ratings by 39% since it launched on Jan. 8, according to the network.
Zucker "really screwed me," Trump joked from the podium on Mar. 25. "He really should be paying me more money." Indeed, Trump's trademark chutzpah is one of the reasons viewers flock to The Apprentice. But does NBC have any other shows that viewers and advertisers are likely to love?
Will and Grace could be Zucker's best shot to replace Friends. Then again, the show is showing signs of age, and Zucker may choose instead to put it in at 8:30, and give 8:00 to Joey, a none-too-subtle attempt to keep the Friends magic alive. LeBlanc showed up to grin for the advertisers, joking that he may just do the show "at my house in my underwear, if I want to."
Considering all NBC had to show on Mar. 25 were clips of LeBlanc doing his shtick on Friends, whether Joey is the right choice is still one giant mystery. Plus, with few exceptions -- most notably Frasier -- history has not been kind to spin-offs.
Maybe that's why NBC actually has some 14 other shows in development as contenders for the Friends slot, according to Kevin Reilly, NBC's president of prime-time development. One of them is Father of the Pride, in which Dreamworks will attempt to bring computer-generated animated magic to the small screen in the guise of a group of white lions from Seigfried and Roy's erstwhile Las Vegas show. With voices like John Goodman and Carl Reiner involved, Pride has some serious talent behind it. For one guest spot, Dreamworks has even brought in Eddie Murphy, who garnered an Oscar nomination for voicing Donkey in their animated blockbuster Shrek.
Does it have a chance? Sure. The Flintstones and The Simpsons proved American audiences will take cartoons during prime time. The Simpsons even moved to Thursday night for a while. But an animated comedy -- no matter how innovative -- for the NBC 8 p.m. Thursday slot, the most treasured in TV Land?
With all the uncertainty, it's no surprise that Zucker was hyping what looks like a late-season resurgence for NBC, with good numbers for newcomers Las Vegas and The Apprentice, and improving numbers for shows like Crossing Jordan. Of course, some of those gains were realized while CBS was airing NCCA basketball and a slew of reruns. But ratings are ratings, regardless of how they're achieved, and who knows what's next? NBC could well be on a roll.
Zucker, who brought his young son to the Vegas set for the presentation, was acting every inch the Hollywood happy fella. Indeed, he says he has more cards to play than just a few months back. That could be true. Then again, as any card player in Vegas knows, you can be convinced your next card will be an ace only to be dealt a deuce. And Zucker and NBC definitely need to play their cards right when it comes to replacing Friends.
Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell