NBC rolls out 6 new shows in bid to rescue ratings

NEW YORK Mon May 4, 2009 4:32pm EDT

A worker takes a break from setting up the NBC Universal booth at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, January 7, 2009. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

A worker takes a break from setting up the NBC Universal booth at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, January 7, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

NEW YORK (Reuters) - In need of a fresh hit, NBC on Monday rolled out six new prime-time series for the upcoming television season, anchored by the lighthearted family drama "Parenthood," a remake of the popular 1989 hit film.

NBC Universal's flagship TV network, NBC, is counting on the lineup of four new dramas and two comedies to rescue its low-rated prime-time schedule. NBC regularly trails rivals CBS, Fox and ABC in the prime-time audience ratings that help determine where advertisers spend their money.

Angela Bromstad, the president of NBC's prime-time entertainment division, said the current lineup featured some of TV's highest-quality shows, but acknowledged the network needed some fresh, breakout hits.

"It's absolutely critical that we bring in new hits to support those programs," she said.

In addition to "Parenthood" -- produced by Ron Howard, who directed the big-screen version 20 years ago -- NBC unveiled two medical dramas, "Trauma" and "Mercy," as well as "Day One," set in the aftermath of a global catastrophe.

NBC took the wraps off its new shows two weeks before the other major networks, though it will not announce its precise schedule -- assigning time slots for its returning and new programs -- until May 19.

Once the four major networks announce their schedules, negotiations with advertisers will begin over roughly $9 billion worth of commercial time. This year, perhaps more than ever, the networks will be praying for breakout hits.

Because of the recession, ad dollars have dried up. That has created a headache for a TV business still trying to cope with the spread of digital video recorders, which allow viewers to fast-forward through commercials. Competition from iPods, video games and websites like Facebook has not helped.

Such is the competition for advertising dollars that CBS launched a national media campaign on Monday trumpeting its ratings in 2008-09, when it has been the only broadcast network to increase its prime-time audience.

At NBC Universal, executives have sought to downplay NBC's struggles and instead promote the successes of its cable networks, including Bravo, USA, CNBC, MSNBC and Oxygen.

Cable now makes up roughly 60 percent of NBC Universal's revenue and has become a favorite of Chief Executive Jeff Zucker.

Still, NBC Universal's broadcast network is -- in many ways -- the public face of the company, and it has been in a slump since longtime comedy favorites "Friends" and "Frasier" ended their runs five years ago.

For the 2009-10 season, NBC is hoping to find success with two new half-hour comedies. "100 Questions" centers on a single woman who agrees to take a 100-question compatibility test when she joins an online dating site.

"Community" is a comedy set at fictitious Greendale Community College, with a student body comprised of an odd mix of divorcees, high-school flops and other misfits.

Six new episodes of "Saturday Night Live Weekend Update Thursday" have also been planned, following on the success of the specials during the presidential elections last fall.

On the drama front, "Trauma" is centered on a group of San Francisco paramedics, while "Mercy" take a look at the workings of a hospital through a group of nurses.

Bromstad called them shows that "people want to come back to because they make them feel good about their own lives."

NBC also announced on Monday that it would bring back "Heroes," "Southland," and the comedy "Parks and Recreation."

Those come in addition to its previously announced plans to pick up existing shows "The Office," "30 Rock," "The Biggest Loser," "The Celebrity Apprentice," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," and "Friday Night Lights."

Unscripted shows include "The Marriage Ref," "Breakthrough With Tony Robbins" and "Who Do You Think You Are?"

NBC has already announced what is the biggest change to its lineup, bringing late-night comedian Jay Leno to the network for a prime-time show five nights a week. The move is part of an effort to curtail costs, since it removes five hours of what can be lofty production costs for scripted dramas or comedies.

NBC Universal is 80 percent owned by General Electric Co and 20 percent owned by France's Vivendi, while CBS Corp owns the CBS Network, News Corp owns Fox and Walt Disney Co owns ABC.

(Reporting by Paul Thomasch, editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Matthew Lewis)