NBC Touts Event Programming, and Dolly Parton, at Its Upfront

The most promising new programs have been saved for midseason

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One day after unveiling its 2015-16 schedule, NBC didn't waste any time getting down to business at its upfront presentation. Back at Radio City Music Hall this year after last year's NFL Draft forced it to relocate to the Javits Center, the network celebrated what looks to be its second consecutive win in adults 18-49 (thanks in large part to the Super Bowl, which put NBC ahead of no. 2 CBS) and tried to assure advertisers and media buyers that it has the goods to go for a third victory next season.

Noting that last year's upfront event went on for 17 minutes before airing any footage of NBC's new shows, NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt dove right in, spotlighting what the network feels is its best shot at a fall hit: drama Blindspot, which will air Mondays at 10 after The Voice. "There is no more coveted time period," said Greenblatt (just ask State of Affairs, which lost too much of that Voice audience this season—and won't be back).

Greenblatt noted the difficulty of finding a drama to break through, with approximately 250 original drama series on the air currently. However, Blindspot, which has a very Blacklist feel (a wildcard teams up with the FBI to solve cases), is "arresting and looks like a feature film," he said. 

"I'll admit, we had some ups and downs this year," said Greenblatt, referring to the network's struggles with comedies and its Thursday night lineup. Those difficulties might continue into the fall: aside from Blindspot, advertisers and ad buyers had a muted reception to the network's other new fall offerings, including medical drama Heartbreaker (which seemed too generic, down to the predictable use of Coldplay's "Fix You" in the sizzle reel), Heroes Reborn (which will need to distinguish itself from all the other TV shows about characters with superhuman abilities) and The Player (a drama starring Wesley Snipes and featuring lots of butt-kicking, with shockingly very little of it being done by Snipes himself).

Greenblatt boasted that NBC's sole new fall comedy, People Are Talking, tackles topics "which rarely make it into the average sitcom," He then screened a trailer which was all about one family's new, attractive babysitter.

The midseason shows were far more enthusiastically received, including comedy Crowded (Patrick Warburton and Carrie Preston have terrific comedic chemistry as empty-nesters whose adult daughters both move back in with them), Hot & Bothered (a broad comedy with Eva Longoria as the star of a hit telenovela), Superstore (America Ferrara works in a Walmart-like store) and especially Chicago Fire/Chicago P.D. spinoff Chicago Med, which got the biggest reception of any new scripted series.

NBC also screened behind the scenes footage of Shades of Blue, which hasn't started filming yet but will star Jennifer Lopez as what Greenblatt called "a tough, sexy detective" (is there any other kind on TV?). There was also promising footage from midseason miniseries You, Me and the End of World ("or what I sometimes refer to as the upfront," said Greenblatt), about an apocalyptic event that brings together priest Rob Lowe and convicts Jenna Fischer and an almost unrecognizable Megan Mullaly.

NBC touted its miniseries/limited series events, including The Wiz Live! on Dec. 3 (they are searching for a newcomer to play Dorothy; the musical's original Dorothy, Stephanie Mills, has been cast as Auntie Em).

Despite a lineup of new talent that includes Lopez and Longoria, the biggest star of the presentation was Dolly Parton, who is teaming with NBC to make films based on her life and songs. The first, Coat of Many Colors, will be out this Christmas. The singer charmed the upfront audience by performing "Coat of Many Colors" and "I Will Always Love You" (on the latter, she was accompanied on piano by Greenblatt himself. Greenblatt handled himself well on the ivories, though Parton lamented, "he usually sings with me!"). After receiving a standing ovation, Parton cracked to advertisers, "we're looking forward to many projects, so get that money out!"

The audience was also receptive to Neil Patrick Harris' pitch for his upcoming live variety show, Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris. To drive his description of the show as "a high-energy grab bag" where "anything can happen," Harris went into the audience—as he'll do on the show—and surprised Melissa Shapiro, president, investment, MediaVest. He revealed that her recent lunch date with Linda Yaccarino, NBC Universal's chairman, ad sales and client partnerships, and Lauren Molen, evp, cable advertising sales, had been secretly filmed, and had included himself, Ted Harbert, chairman, NBC Broadcasting, and Dan Lovinger, evp, entertainment advertising sales group, disguised as doormen and waiters.

Harris' show will also feature celebrity guest announcers and music acts, and "every week we will end with an over the top performance."

During the NBC Sports portion of the presentation, Michael Phelps talked about the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, while Sunday Night Football announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth previewed the return of broadcast's top primetime show for the past four years.

On the late night front, "we think we'll continue to have the hot hand here," despite the CBS changes in late night, said Greenblatt, who called Jimmy Fallon someone who "is now, in many ways, the face of NBC." Fallon joked of his Tonight Show schedule, "we do five shows a week; that's like a whole season for most NBC shows!" (As for the former face of NBC, Brian Williams, his name wasn't uttered once during the presentation, nor was there any mention of NBC News.)

NBC kept its direct pitch to advertisers very brief. Yaccarino noted that "there might be a lot more places to watch video…but the only video that really matters is quality video," adding that "when it comes to selling your products, there's nothing more effective, and we've got the data to prove it." She touted NBCU's various services, including NBCU+ Powered by Comcast (which provides greater insights into viewer usage patterns), NBCUx (which offers programmatic access to premium content combined with data-enabled targeting), ATP/NBCUniversal (its audience targeting platform) and its new partnership with AOL.

"We're all still bullish on the scale and reach of broadcast television," said Greenblatt, bringing broadcast week's first upfront to a close.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.