Fox, NBC turn to familiar faces to boost viewership

Mon May 13, 2013 3:09pm EDT

U.S. actor Michael J. Fox arrives on the red carpet for the 46th 'Goldene Kamera' (Golden Camera) awards ceremony at the Ullstein Auditorium in Berlin, February 5, 2011. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

U.S. actor Michael J. Fox arrives on the red carpet for the 46th 'Goldene Kamera' (Golden Camera) awards ceremony at the Ullstein Auditorium in Berlin, February 5, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peter

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(Reuters) - Broadcast networks Fox and NBC are turning to proven favorites to lure new viewers next season, with Fox rebooting the defunct Kiefer Sutherland action series "24" and NBC bringing back Michael J. Fox in a comedy loosely based on his life.

The two networks pitched their TV schedules to advertisers on Monday at the start of the "upfront" selling season, an annual rite when broadcasters try to persuade advertisers to shell out billions of dollars in advance for their new shows.

NBC and Fox need new hits to fill out their lineups, which may explain why both are bringing back stars from the past.

Prime time ratings at News Corp-owned Fox slumped 16.7 percent this year, according to Nielsen data provided by Horizon Media and based on live viewing and those who record and watch the show the same day. The decline stemmed largely from a dwindling audience for singing contest "American Idol."

Viewership at Comcast-owned NBC remained flat this season while that of its rivals declined. NBC is so far in third place this year among total viewers based on same-day viewing but has been in the ratings cellar for years.

At a presentation at New York's Radio City Music Hall, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt highlighted "The Michael J. Fox Show," a new semi-autobiographical comedy about a father with Parkinson's. Fox starred on NBC in 1980s sitcom "Family Ties."

The network also announced the return of "Will & Grace" star Sean Hayes to its schedule in "Sean Saves the World," a sitcom about a divorced gay dad, and trumpeted its broadcast of the Winter Olympics early next year.

Greenblatt said the network's performance needs to improve.

"We have no illusions about how much work is ahead of us in order to grow our business," Greenblatt told advertisers at the presentation.

Jay Leno, who will be replaced by comedian Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show" in early 2014, joked in a video duet with Fallon about NBC's struggles.

"Who knows? We may beat Univision," Leno sang. NBC lost the February sweeps ratings period this year to Spanish-language network Univision.

Fallon told the crowd to send any complaints about the late night schedule to Greenblatt and flashed an authentic email address for the NBC executive on the screen.

Attendees at NBC's event said they were impressed with the initial glimpses of the Michael J. Fox comedy as well as drama "The Blacklist," which stars James Spader as an ex-government agent who is one of the FBI's most-wanted fugitives.

"'Blacklist' stood out to me. I thought it was high drama," said Greg McLelland, vice president of national sales for Canadian firm Shaw Media, following the event.

JACK IS BACK

On Fox, the network is turning to one of its former heavyweights, Sutherland, for a limited run in May of its popular thriller "24," with 12 episodes that represent 24 hours. The original show ran on Fox for eight seasons ending in 2010.

Fox also unveiled five new comedies and four dramas. They include "Dads," the first live-action comedy from "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane, and "Almost Human," from J.J. Abrams, creator of "Lost.".

Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly said that Fox was making "the biggest investment" to date in programming for Fox but declined to comment on the amount.

Reilly said it was likely "American Idol," which lost 20 percent of its audience this season, would have three judges next year rather than four. Last week, veteran judge Randy Jackson said he would be leaving the show after 12 years.

Wall Street analysts expect broadcast networks to have to settle for lower ad rate increases than they have enjoyed in recent years.

Average prime time ratings this season have declined 7.5 percent at the four broadcast networks as they compete with cable hits like "The Walking Dead" and "Duck Dynasty," and streaming services like Netflix Inc.

Netflix, in a bid to shift attention away from the broadcast networks, had a man in a banana suit give out stickers to ad executives outside of the NBC upfront. The stunt promoted "Arrested Development," a former Fox network sitcom that the Internet streaming service is reviving this month online.

ABC, owned by Walt Disney Co, will present its new schedule to advertisers on Tuesday, followed by CBS on Wednesday.

(Reporting By Liana B. Baker in New York and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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