Following his second full development season,

Following his second full development season, Kevin Reilly remains upbeat about NBC’s future. With such high-profile series as Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip and The Black Donnellys, from Crash screenwriters Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, NBC’s entertainment president believes the network can only trend upwards next fall.

Of course, Reilly announced NBC’s 2006-’07 schedule with a caveat: As the first network to present its fall lineup during the upfront presentations earlier this month and as the current season’s fourth-place network among 18-49 viewers, Reilly knew going into the upfronts that he might have to shuffle the deck to avoid his rivals’ reach.

At press time, NBC had yet to announce any changes to its fall schedule. But most analysts and advertisers agreed that ABC’s repositioning of Grey’s Anatomy on Thursdays at 9 p.m., along with the continued dominance in that time slot of CBS’ CSI, left little sampling potential for Studio 60.

On the 25th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Reilly sat down with Mediaweek’s A.J. Frutkin to discuss NBC’s weakened position, the marketing power of NFL football on its schedule, and the network’s aggressive push into digital content.

A.J. FRUTKIN: Would you mind starting out by talking about last season?

KEVIN REILLY: I do mind. One of the most trying things has been the fact of having to spend so much of my energy defending the past, explaining aging franchises going away, or why isn’t The West Wing pulling the numbers or why isn’t Joey as big as Friends, versus what we’re building for the future.

What I was so excited about [at the upfront presentation] was, I finally felt like we were putting pieces on the board with our new development and with the NFL. I’m fairly certain that when you and I talk next season, there are going to be some elements there that’ll be exciting and feel like something to talk about. Not “Why didn’t this do that?” or “Boy, you guys are down.” That chapter is just about closed.

Looking toward NBC’s future, were there things you did differently this development season from last?

What’s different is the product and the process. Last June, we went right back in business, to try to uncover some midseason pilots. It didn’t work out to be successful with Conviction and Heist, but the thing that did prove to be successful was uncovering, I think, two winners for next season which we picked up early: The Black Donnellys and Kidnapped. We’re doing it again. We now have a summer track and a winter track. We rolled a couple of things forward, so that means sometime between August and October, we’ll shoot a batch of pilots, some of which may get on as early as next spring, some of which may just be early pick-ups for next year like we did with Donnellys and Kidnapped. Then we’ll do another batch again in the winter.

That’s the process side. In terms of product, what we did differently this year is we started saying, buy shows you believe in; don’t buy by type: “This seems to be what we need” or “This is what’s working out there.” Make it personal. Make it a show that you yourself would watch and you believe would be somebody’s favorite show.

Part of the network’s strategy seems to be keeping really strong shows at 10 p.m., leading into local news.

Given our ratings challenge relative to, say, ABC, which has more steam with some bigger hits, they have struggled at 10 o’clock. Even a show like Law & Order, which is clearly not as strong as it once was, over-indexes in most of our major markets. It still provides a strong household lead-in, which is what stations look for. We have a pretty strong 10 o’clock story as far as I’m concerned.

I understand the strategy of keeping 10 p.m. strong. But how do you get sampling for your new 8 and 9 p.m. shows if there is nothing strong leading into them?

There is a moment in time in which you can move a program, where the audience is so hungry for that show that they’re going to follow it wherever it goes and change their viewing habits. Clearly, ABC moved Grey’s Anatomy; that was the right time to move that show. We were trapped by our own success. It was just a complacency. We did not move a lot of our tent poles when we probably could have used some of the Law & Orders, some of our other comedies [earlier in the evening], and broken them up to create launch pads for new shows. We had real dominance at 10 o’clock, and some of those shows could have been used instead at 9 o’clock.

Speaking of ABC, and Grey’s Anatomy moving to Thursdays at 10, can Studio 60 stay there now?

I don’t know yet. When you’re in fourth place and you’re announcing first, you’re leading with your chin. What we decided to do is put out the schedule that we felt completely confident with and make a statement about a few of the shows we believe in. In a perfect world, this is where they would go. We have to [reassess this].

Can you sell a schedule that’s going to change?

Yes, because the marketplace is not going to move as fast this year. From what I’m hearing from the ad-sales guys, it seems as though some clients are taking a bit more of a wait-and-see approach. So regardless of where the market ends up, this is not something that’s going to be closed in a five-day spree. I also don’t think anybody in the marketplace will be altogether shocked if NBC makes some changes. I think they probably would think we were stupid if we didn’t.

What do you think is a reasonable window for you to make those changes in?

We may do a little tinkering with it right through the summer, which all networks do. But the fundamental schedule has got to be resolved within a week because it’s going to trigger some marketing decisions on certainly our tent-pole shows, and just because it’s going to impact our launches.

On the subject of marketing, how will you use football on Sunday nights to promote your shows?

It will be most effective for shows that are on Mondays and Tuesdays. Most effective just because they’ll be top of mind. If you can drive viewers directly from Sunday to Monday, that’s great. I think Fox has done that very effectively with 24.

But it’s not just about proximity. It’s also about demographics, right?

The demographics kind of goes without saying. I think we know who watches football and I think if you try to push a very strong female show in football, you’re not using your rating points very efficiently. Right now we have Heroes on Monday at 9. Heroes has a very strong male appeal. You could see the football promo. Kidnapped you could see the football promo, Friday Night Lights you could see the football promo. It’s not a coincidence that we clustered those new shows earlier in the week.

Both The Office and My Name is Earl have been critical successes and great for the NBC brand. But the numbers are just OK. Don’t you have to grow the ratings for both of these shows if they are to become real moneymakers for you? How do you do that?

Right, but first of all, the numbers were more than OK. In a tough year, I felt like we were at the 10-yard line with the chance to bring those things over the goal line, and it got fumbled in the last few weeks. Earl is still the No. 1 new scripted show of last season, and it is tied for the No. 1 comedy on television. We were averaging about a 5.2 [among viewers 18-49] up against CSI up until late March, when we went into repeats. The Office was up almost 85 percent from last season and became one of the top five comedies. Those were just good numbers, period; they didn’t need any clarifiers. We were doing a 4-plus rating in the last couple of outings, a 4.2 rating in the last week; it’s still a damn good number.

If you look across the board, it tells you there’s not a lot of shows pulling north of a 4 rating, so I don’t make any apologies for those at all. Unfortunately, when we [lost some] audience going into repeats, we’ve got a male core there—that’s a fickle audience. We didn’t have the circulation on our network at that point to bring them back for the end of the season. That’s one of the reasons why we want to put those shows in some proximity to other exciting shows, where we can relaunch the whole night and get people to come back. I do know that those are appointment shows.

Even with a solid 18-49 rating, I would assume, in terms of total viewership, those numbers have to grow just to become that sort of watercooler ratings hit.

I go back and look at NBC at the early ’80s, when [Brandon] Tartikoff had my job. You know, it took him four years to turn around the network from the doldrums that occurred in the ’70s. And you look back at certain shows like Family Ties that were on the air at the time, they were doing modest business. When Cosby reignited the schedule, all of a sudden they went to the next level as well.

My point is: One, it’s not going to be necessarily incumbent upon those shows to drive the success of the entire network. And two, when the circulation gets up in the entire network, all of a sudden you’re going to see those shows get to a place you never imagined.

Part of NBC’s identity has been that sort of two-hour block of “must-see” comedy on Thursday nights. Do you think that hurts the brand at all to move an hour of comedy off that night?

I don’t, because I think first of all, the brand is about the quality of the show, not any particular type of show. It’s not about a mythical four-comedy block. I think we have the pieces right now between Tina Fey [30 Rock], 20 Good Years, The Singles Table and, as backup, Scrubs. I think we have the comedy pieces to do that block and, frankly, we may. But with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, we had a show that seemed like it had all of the quality behind it that we wanted for Thursday night. When we stacked that night, it looked like the kind of appointment TV that Thursday night is about. One could also make the case that, like [ABC’s] Desperate Housewives, it’s a one-hour comedy.

A show that goes behind the scenes of the entertainment industry might be considered Hollywood navel-gazing, and viewers have not traditionally cared for that. Conventional wisdom assumed you would choose either Studio 60 or 30 Rock, yet you chose both. Do you think viewers will watch both?

Both shows deserve to be on. You’ve got creators like Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme, and Tina Fey, and you’ve got a cast like Alec Baldwin and Tracey Morgan on 30 Rock and Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry and Amanda Peet on Studio 60. Ultimately, they’re going to be apples and oranges. We’re going to have a fairly madcap comedy in 30 Rock and we’re going to have a searing, sexy serial in Studio 60. If these were two cop shows, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

The network developed more drama than comedy for next season. This isn’t just about comedy being in a down cycle, is it?

It’s frustrating. It kind of defies logic, because you think in these times that people would like to laugh. I think one of the things we’re competing with is that comedy does live on. I Love Lucy is as funny and fresh today as it was when it was shot 50-something years ago. Comedies do not age the way dramas do. An episode of Miami Vice today looks a little goofy. There was no more cutting-edge show, and yet you look at the pastel suits and that soundtrack and it kind of makes you wince.

The fact that comedy still exists in so many places—on cable and syndication, on DVD—we have reality comedy, we have talk comedy between the various stripped comedy shows. The scripted half-hour sitcom that was unique in television for some reason is becoming a much tougher nut to crack. The audience was always very forgiving on that genre. The audience was always willing to sample them and stick with them. It’s just not the case right now.

The traditional, multicamera comedy seems to be in particular trouble.

We did have two single-camera comedies (Earl and The Office) that clearly were the envy of the business, so you certainly see our competitors trying to chase that target. ABC made a very clear move to go after single camera. I don’t think it’s really about the form. Single-camera comedies are much harder to produce; they’re much harder to finance. You’re trying to do a 22-minute movie, which ends up costing not a whole lot less than a drama.

The comedy business is a frustrating situation. We’re not waving a white flag, but we’re trying to get really practical about it. We could say we’re NBC, we’re building comedy. But if the audience is not willing to go there with you, we ultimately say it’s got to be about quality, not about any particular type of show.

NBC has been very aggressive in digital TV. Yet you would think that along with The Office and having content available on the Web, Earl would be there. What are the challenges involved in working outside the company to make this happen?

We don’t know what’s going to work and what’s not, but we’re experimenting. It’s not something that guys in the back room do toiling away in the dark; we’re giving them a seat at the table. We still play by the old rules, which is buyer/supplier, because we have a network to run. But we have gotten Touchstone TV, our partner on Scrubs, to do an iTunes deal. We talked to Twentieth, we talked to our other suppliers about trying to [do deals]. There’s no set way; it’s a case-by-case basis.

Whether we’re the No. 1 network or the No. 4 network right now, there are some large-scale, long-term issues knocking at our door that you can either be in denial about or you can embrace. At NBC we’re simply saying we’re embracing them because they’re here to stay.

In the wake of comedy’s decline, reality has staked out a lot of real estate. At a time when American Idol is gaining year to year, are you surprised by how quickly or how steep The Apprentice has declined? If so, are you doing anything to stave off that decline?

Last year, in fact, we did three cycles, when you count Martha Stewart. And I think that hurt. Next cycle we are going to Los Angeles. There are some twists in the format itself, and I think we’ll freshen it up.But we ultimately said, let’s make it a once-a-year event rather than try to milk it for two cycles a year. The Apprentice is still a successful television program; it’s just that it was such a phenomenon. I also think it suffered from the diminished state of the network in general. That’s a program that anybody would be happy to have on their air.

How would you define NBC’s nonscripted programming? How does it fit into the overall brand?

First and foremost, I want to get ahead of trends, and I think that we did that this year with Deal or No Deal. Apprentice did too. Biggest Loser did. Biggest Loser wasn’t the second or third weight-loss show in the marketplace and I think that’s really what we want to be defined by.

Of course, NBC’s summer series, Treasure Hunters, is a lot like CBS’ The Amazing Race.

Look, there is nothing new under the sun. You can say that CSI is a gussied up Law & Order. Even the best TV shows pay homage to something. There are the me-too shows and there are the ones that feel like they’re on the next trend. That’s what we’re going to look to do.

Having spoken to advertisers following your upfront presentation, it seems as if everyone loves 30 Rock. The one I think that people questioned the most was 20 Good Years.

I don’t know how many people you talked to, but I think if you go broader that’s got a kind of a two-part answer. I think a lot of people really liked [20 Good Years]. I think the knee-jerk by some people was “That feels out of place” or “That’s too old.” And yet the complimentary say, “That kind of feels fresh by virtue of the fact that it seems so unlike anything else out there on anyone’s network.” I don’t think it’s a big stretch to imagine Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow being funny. Coming out of Biggest Loser, which is kind of a women’s 35-plus audience, it felt like a really good fit.

This is a business about failure. And if something like 20 Good Years fails, do you have a contingency plan? How do you make contingency plans at this point? I know you’re going into production on Scrubs and Crossing Jordan, even though they’re not on next season’s schedule. Can you turn those around as quickly as you need?

Both these shows have demonstrated they can come on in the middle of the season and reanimate their audience. They both have very loyal audiences, very different audiences. Then we’ve got Andy Barker and The Singles Table, so I think we’ve got shows on the bench.

The thing I’m probably most positive about is, I do believe we have four, five or six shows that are anywhere from really exciting to at least viable. We’re going to come out of this with a couple of winners. If we get two or three more shows to stick, all of a sudden the whole landscape starts looking much different.

Can you see, come the end of next season, that the network will be in a different position?

Oh, we will be. A year ago if you asked me that question I would have said it’s going to be about stabilizing. The stabilization is done. We’ve played through. We will be back.

Is it good enough to get the network out of fourth place?

I don’t know. And it’s not even going to be about fourth place, but it’s going to be about penetrating the culture, selling to advertisers. The separation between the first and fourth place these days is not insurmountable. It’s pretty clear that with a tenth of a rating point dividing these networks, the standings can turn overnight. I would imagine that that gap would be changed or we would be in a different place.

How long does an executive in your position have to turn things around?

These jobs, by their nature, are such all-consuming positions to get into the fabric of the leadership of the company, and to put your own stamp on it. Even in good times, anybody who’s done my job will tell you that it takes probably a good two, three seasons to get just up to speed being able to play on all the levels that it takes—the talent level, the deal-making, putting your creative staff together. It really calls all of your skill sets to bear at once and just getting up to speed on all of that takes a lot.

Having come to NBC from FX, and having had such success with The Shield and Nip/Tuck, does that seem like a lifetime ago?

Yes, it’s been a long couple of years. I’m going to look back and find this is probably the most valuable thing that ever happened. The character-building part of it has been painful, but really valuable. I said in the upfront that cliché “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” All clichés ultimately turn out to be true. I do feel that way.

But there have to be times you look in the mirror and say, “OK, enough with the character-building.”

I am ready to start getting a little different energy on a daily basis, and it’s nice to start seeing something coming back. That’s the hardest part of it—not the rumor mill. The hardest part is, you work 18-hour days, you’re putting a lot in and there’s not a lot coming back. Nobody has a crystal ball, but I know when I’m sitting on something. We are sitting on some shows that are going to be successes, and that makes me excited to now live through the next year.

Based in Los Angeles, A.J. Frutkin is a senior editor covering TV production for Mediaweek.