The network is revamping its Thursday night lineup, the linchpin of its "must-see TV" golden years, and hopes Sunday night football will also add strength to the schedule.
NBC finished a first-ever fourth in the ratings last year and is looking at a similar showing this season, with Howie Mandel's game show "Deal or No Deal" the only notable new success. That game will be on the schedule twice next fall, Monday and Friday nights.
The network also took the wraps off an aggressive online strategy. NBC Universal will launch a new broadband comedy channel this summer, with current and classic material. NBC and cable partners at Bravo and Sci Fi will also begin showing several episodes of current series online before they reach TV. (NBC Universal is a joint venture of General Electric Co. and Vivendi Universal.)
NBC was the first of the broadcast networks, including the fledgling CW network that will start operations in September, to announce a fall schedule this week.
"In all candor, I think it's been a banner year in NBC development," Kevin Reilly, NBC entertainment president, said Monday. "We hit the gold mine this year."
That's what advertisers, who will commit to billions of dollars of commercial time over the next few weeks in the process known as the upfront, are most eager to see from NBC. Sorkin's show "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is the most prominent new series.
Sorkin, creator of "The West Wing," brings Bradley Whitford from that series to his new show, along with Matthew Perry of "Friends" and Amanda Peet. It's about the turmoil and romance backstage at a network comedy sketch show, and NBC is telegraphing its importance by scheduling it at 9 p.m. on Thursdays — once the time slot of "Cheers" and "Seinfeld."
NBC also scheduled "30 Rock," a comedy that Tina Fey of "Saturday Night Live" wrote and stars in, about the backstage world of a network comedy. Reilly said he wasn't worried about two new similar series, saying the tone is very different.
"If they were two cop shows, nobody would waste a minute of breath on it," Reilly said.
NBC is moving its two promising Thursday comedies, "My Name is Earl" and "The Office," up an hour to begin at 8 p.m. While "ER" returns at 10 p.m., NBC won't air repeats of the long-running medical show. "ER" will split its run with a new drama, "The Black Donnellys," about Irish mobsters.