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Seeking a comeback, NBC bets heavily on comedy

Matthew Perry. (Michael Desmond/AP)

NEW YORK: Hoping to lure viewers with laughs, the struggling NBC television network is calling on old friend Matthew Perry to lend a hand.

The TV network unveiled a fall schedule on Sunday that has 10 sitcoms, double the number of dramas it will air. Comedy is being added to two nights, Tuesday and Friday. All the low-rated but critically-acclaimed Thursday comedies earned renewals, although "Community" will move to Fridays.

Four of the comedies are new, including "Go On," starring former "Friends" star Perry as a fast-talking, sarcastic sportscaster who loses his wife in a car accident.

"It is heavy on comedy," said Robert Greenblatt, NBC entertainment president. "It was a conscious decision we made ... at the beginning of the development season. The audience is really open to comedy right now."

NBC is finding a new generation of fans discovering Perry's Chandler character through "Friends" reruns, and that contributed to "Go On" having broad appeal in audience testing, Greenblatt said. NBC gave the comedy one of its few plum time slots, after the second night of "The Voice" on Tuesdays.

In an annual ritual, all the broadcast networks present their fall schedules to advertisers this week and ask them to commit to millions of dollars in commercial time.

Fourth place NBC is in a prolonged slump. Its prime-time viewership was up slightly this year, but only because NBC telecast the Super Bowl. Take that game out and viewership was down 3 percent, according to the Nielsen company. Sunday night football in the fall is the network's most popular programming.

Among the shows canceled by NBC are "Harry's Law," ''Awake," ''Are You There, Chelsea?" and "Bent."

"Harry's Law," starring Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, was one of NBC's more popular shows, but executives said it fell victim to a deadly malady in network TV: Its audience was too old.

One show on the bubble was Brian Williams' newsmagazine, "Rock Center," but it is on the fall schedule for Thursday nights at 10 p.m. Greenblatt conceded the show's ratings are not what NBC hoped for, but said such shows frequently take time to catch on.

"Smash" was renewed, although the series about putting on a Broadway production will not be back until mid-season. "The Voice" currently airs two nights a week toward the end of the singing competition; starting in fall it will air two nights throughout each run.

Two of the current Thursday comedies, "30 Rock" and "Community," have orders of only 13 episodes next season, often a sign that executives are hedging their bets. "The Office" and "Parks & Recreation" have full-season orders. Despite reports that some of those shows have been told it will be their last season, Greenblatt said that wasn't true and they could have longer lives if ratings improve.

"The audience gets a vote," said Ted Harbert, who oversees NBC for corporate parent Comcast Corp.

NBC's challenge is getting audiences to sample some of the four new comedies and two new dramas it will introduce this fall, when they are out of the habit of watching NBC. Three new comedies, three new dramas and four new alternative series were ordered and will join the lineup sometime in mid-season.

Betty White's "Off Their Rockers" candid camera show will also return mid-season.

Between the Olympics and "America's Got Talent," NBC has more original programming on during the summer than its rivals, and Greenblatt said that the network hopes viewers are enticed by promotions for the new shows.

Besides "Go On," the new NBC shows on in the fall are:

-"The New Normal," about a gay couple that invites a surrogate mother into their home as they try to have a baby. Ellen Barkin is featured as the prospective mom's grandmother.

-"Animal Practice," a comedy about a veterinarian who learns his ex-lover is taking over his business.

-"Guys With Kids," a comedy executive produced by Jimmy Fallon. The show is what it sounds like: three guys in their 30s trying to hold onto their youth despite being new fathers. Jamie Lynn Sigler of "The Sopranos" and Tempestt Bledsoe of "The Cosby Show," are featured.

-"Revolution," a J.J. Abrams action series where the world is plunged back into a time when electricity doesn't work.

-"Chicago Fire," a drama about a fire rescue unit from "Law & Order" executive producer Dick Wolf.

Mid-season shows include a comedy about a president and first lady played by Bill Pullman and Jenna Elfman, a comedy with Dane Cook as a foulmouthed DJ forced to share his microphone with a feminist, and a drama about psychiatrist-cannibal killer Hannibal Lecter.

 

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