The acclaimed football-and-family drama will return on NBC for a third year after 13 new episodes have aired on satellite-television provider DirecTV, in an unusual deal designed to spread production costs while rekindling a series whose audience until now has been as small as it is fervent.
The series will unfold weekly for DirecTV subscribers beginning Oct. 1. Then, early in 2009, it will be seen on NBC, which made the announcement Wednesday. Financial details of the deal were not disclosed.
Come fall, four new scripted series are slated:
"My Own Worst Enemy," a drama starring Christian Slater as a humdrum family man plagued by a Mr. Hyde streak.
"Kath & Kim," a mother-and-daughter comedy adapted from an Australian hit and starring Molly Shannon and Selma Blair.
"Crusoe," based on the classic novel.
The winter-spring 2009 schedule will introduce four more series:
"The Philanthropist," a drama about a selfish billionaire who, after a spiritual awakening, will do anything to help people in need.
"Merlin," a fantasy drama set in mythic Camelot.
"Kings," described as an "exploration of the timeless David vs. Goliath struggle" and starring Ian McShane ("Deadwood").
An as-yet-undescribed comedy spinoff from the producers of "The Office."
"ER" will come to an end next season - its 15th.
This year's freshman dramas "Journeyman" and "Bionic Woman" have been axed, as has the long-running "Scrubs," which will finish its run in May.
Rumors of a rescue for "Friday Night Lights" began circulating last month, but a final deal wasn't struck between the network, studio, producers and satellite service until this week, the participants said Tuesday.
"There is such a passion for this show among its viewers," said NBC entertainment chief Ben Silverman, "and although you would hope that passion would have manifested itself in higher ratings," the new arrangement allows NBC "to have this jewel of a show and not even need to expand its audience to succeed on a financial basis."
Of course, hopes are high the audience will expand. (In its now-concluded second season, the show averaged just 6.2 million viewers, tying it for 117th place in network prime time.)
Premiering each episode for DirecTV's subscriber base of 16.8 million shouldn't hurt the series' prospects among NBC's much larger universe of viewers, Silverman said. And with DirecTV mounting an aggressive marketing campaign of its own, heightened public awareness of the series might carry over, drawing a larger audience for its later NBC run.
The deal was first discussed in January when Silverman and Eric Shanks, DirecTV vice president of entertainment, met at the Sundance Film Festival.
"I'm a fan of the show," Shanks said, "and that was one reason why I was happy to be in a position to help it continue." And he had done business with Universal Media Studios, the network's production arm. A year ago, he acquired "Passions" for an exclusive seasonlong run after that daytime drama was canceled by NBC.
"Friday Night Lights" will be available to DirecTV subscribers on its entertainment channel, The 101. And while the deal is for one year only, both Silverman and Shanks said it might extend go that.
"I'm so enamored with the quality of the product that I really haven't set any particular ratings goals or subscriber goals for it," Shanks said.
Filmed in Austin, the series depicts a small Texas town unified by its high school football team, the Dillon Panthers. Kyle Chandler heads the large ensemble cast as Coach Eric Taylor, whose never-say-die spirit seems to have served the series well since it premiered in September 2006 to ecstatic reviews but lackluster numbers. Despite its acclaim (including a Peabody award), an active fan community and continued expressions of support by NBC, the show seemed to live from week to week - until now.
"It's really reassuring to have a known quantity of episodes, and not have any question marks," said executive producer Jason Katims, who now has a guaranteed season. "I think that will really energize our storytelling. I'm hoping to get the writers into a room within the next 48 hours." Production should resume in July.
But that will only be the start, said Katherine Pope, president of Universal Media Studios.
"We aren't just trying to keep the patient on life support for another season," she said. "This is about bringing the show to the next level, in quality and acceptance. This is about exploding the show! You think the show has been brilliant these past two seasons? This is going to be the best season yet!"
By Frazier Moore