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Games begin for NBC's fall TV

By Breeanna Hare, CNN
August 8, 2012 -- Updated 1638 GMT (0038 HKT)
Matthew Perry, left, stars with Brett Gelman in NBC's new comedy
Matthew Perry, left, stars with Brett Gelman in NBC's new comedy "Go On" as a radio personality in a therapy group.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NBC will use the Olympics as an entree to two new comedies in coming week
  • It's part of a larger strategy to capitalize on ratings and highlight content ahead of fall premieres
  • Critics say timing and quality could derail the strategy's effectiveness
  • The move is also a sign of the changing TV landscape

(CNN) -- The 2012 Summer Olympics are in the home stretch this week, but for the network airing them the games have just begun.

As NBC celebrates ratings success with the Summer Games -- and weathers the shouts of #NBCfail from the critical -- it's also staring down the onset of fall TV season, that post-Labor Day flood of returning prime-time staples and new programming.

In an attempt to rise above the swell and pick up as many viewers as possible, NBC's getting a jump-start on the competition and offering advance screenings of two new comedies following its Olympic coverage as well as two-week "sampling" windows on a variety of platforms for all its fall pilots ahead of their premieres.

"We are so committed to looking at this as a sampling opportunity that we're running it without commercials," said Vernon Sanders, NBC's executive vice president of current programming. "We're not focused on ratings; we're focused on getting eyeballs."

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The idea -- to secure viewership before a show premieres -- isn't a new strategy, and NBC's not the only network employing it. Fox, for example, has used pre-premiere sampling in the past to promote "Glee" and "New Girl," and the network's doing the same again at the end of this month by offering a two-week window to watch pilots for "The Mindy Project" and "Ben and Kate" online ahead of their September premieres.

But at the moment, Fox doesn't have the viewership that NBC has -- on Monday night, 26.6 million were tuned in to NBC during prime time -- nor does it have a reputation of poorly received fall seasons past to shake off. NBC's chairman of entertainment, Robert Greenblatt, reportedly told press at the recent Television Critics Association tour the brand's in a period of transition after being in last place since the '03-'04 season, and is trying to stretch toward content with broader appeal.

To that end, no one's batting an eyelash that NBC is trying to capitalize on this sizable audience, but whether the efforts will pay off is up for debate. One potential kink is a question of timing, and whether TV-deluged audiences, more accustomed to on-demand versus appointment viewing, will remember to tune in a month. The answer to that, of course, will be compounded by the other question at hand, that of quality.

It's no secret that in its post-"Friends" and "ER" years, NBC acquired a rep for dismal programming, and was unable to find anything that stuck, said Susan Young, a TV critic and former president of the Television Critics Association.

"After a while, it's difficult to get momentum again," Young said. "They've tried to do quality shows. 'Parenthood' is a quality show, 'Friday Night Lights' was a high-quality show, but they somehow just lost traction with viewers, and they have to do something to try to get people back into the tent."

Wednesday night will bring a look at Matthew Perry's "Go On," a darker comedy about a radio sportscaster who joins a group therapy session after his wife dies. After the Games' closing ceremony Sunday, there'll be a viewing of "Animal Practice" in which Justin Kirk plays a womanizing veterinarian who's not that into people but does have a monkey sidekick.

"NBC has not done well in a crowded landscape," Young said, so this year's strategy "gives an opportunity to let their shows shine. Having said that, they don't have very many shiny shows."

"Animal Practice," in the estimation of free-lance TV critic Ryan McGee, "is the lowest common denominator at the time when they have the most people."

Perry's "Go On," while not a favorite, was more fully formed. "For all of NBC's desires to sort of tack toward the middle, it's a very dark show," McGee said. "I have no problem with drama in comedy. ... There's a lot of space in the half-hour medium to do different things. But people think 30 minutes and they think, if I didn't laugh the whole time this wasn't a successful episode of television. I don't know how ('Go On') will play after the shot put."

Regardless, "They'd be foolish not to try," said Bill Gorman of TVBytheNumbers.com, although he hastened to add, "I just don't think it's going to have that much of an effect."

The '08 Olympics, he noted, didn't offer a promotional boost for that year's fall lineup. "All of NBC's new fall 2008 shows -- 'My Own Worst Enemy,' 'Knight Rider,' 'Kath & Kim,' 'America's Toughest Jobs,' 'Crusoe' -- were canceled in their rookie seasons," Gorman added via e-mail. "None of them even received a full first-season order."

The concept for this year's strategy has been evolving since 2011, with NBC aware that the Olympics will bring viewers who are fans of the sporting event but who may not regularly watch the network.

"We're doing everything we can to get things out there. It's been a shift in thinking since Bob Greenblatt came aboard," NBC exec Sanders said. "These days you have to do it all. ... When you're competing with four other networks and there's 15 new shows all premiering within one week, it becomes very difficult to get attention and, in some cases, convince people to check out your show, whether it's a new show or a show that they're loyal to. We're really hoping that by doing this not as a traditional launch, but just as a chance to get people to sample the shows, that we're getting to have a leg up on our competitors, perhaps, and to have a leg up on a more traditional launch."

The concept also applies to its prime-time fantasy show "Grimm," which will launch its second season well ahead of the pack on August 13. Industry observers will likely watch how this plan pays off, as it's yet another sign of networks being confronted with a vastly changing landscape.

"There's really no need for a fall season anymore," said TV critic and NPR contributor David Bianculli of TVWorthWatching.com. "That started so car companies could roll out their new car advertisements, and that's not happening. The British model of shows that have like, 10 episodes a season, seems to be much smarter in terms of getting good talent and good scripts, but it's not a model that has worked economically for the States yet."

Networks and newspapers, he added, are having "the same problems right now. They're desperate for the viewers and readers that they don't have. They don't know how to get them, but in trying to attract them, they're alienating the people that they do have. I think they were trying for young, hip viewers with shows like "Community," which certainly increased their Web presence and their presence in social media, but it didn't pay off in ways that counted, or at least still count for the networks."

Critic McGee agrees, noting that NBC's evolution could create problems as it raises awareness of the programming -- that being a lack of clarity of what makes an NBC show.

"Right now it's 'The Office,' 'Parks and Recreation' and 'Community,' " but if you ask the broader contingent what's on NBC, "they're going to say 'Law & Order: SVU' and 'The Biggest Loser,'" which is problematic considering how well the other networks have shaped their content.

"CBS is a very well-defined identity, with basically the same show on every night, and people love that type of show. ABC is a well-defined identity, where it's family comedy with a slight edge plus reality programming for women," McGee said. "Fox has its reality shows and slightly edgy comedies. NBC has been struggling for something -- it's got 'Parenthood' over here, it's got 'Community' over here, it's got 'The Biggest Loser' in the middle, it's got 'SVU' hanging on for dear life. It's trying to figure out -- when you think of NBC, what are you going to think of? Right now, they want you to think of Matthew Perry and a monkey."

For Sanders, the answer to the question about the network's brand is to create "great shows" -- and, yes, great ones that people watch. In his estimation, the network's aiming for greater accessibility, which isn't to discount its more sophisticated programming.

The Thursday night comedies most readily associated with NBC -- "Parks and Recreation," "30 Rock," "The Office," "Community" -- "they've brought us attention and acclaim, and we're incredibly proud of them," Sanders said.

"As for these (new) shows, we're hoping that they're going to be just as smart, just as funny and insightful, and we're hoping that they're going to be instantly accessible to the audience," he continued. "The big shift that I've felt in the development and the attention in these new shows is just making sure we're adding an extra dollop of heart."

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