There comes a time when the Entertainment president of every network must leave his or her position -- often right after he or she has brought in a series that turns out to be a huge hit for his employer. That is certainly the case with NBC's Kevin Reilly, whose departure this week from the network raises one immediate question: Doesn't Heroes count for something?
Heroes, a genuine original, is perhaps the only new series to debut last fall on any network that truly captivated the American viewing public, and one that any network would benefit from having. It was a big risk for Reilly to back a show about seemingly ordinary people with super-powers who were scattered around the country, and it paid off. Reilly also took risks with Friday Night Lights, the finest and most profound new drama of the 2006-07 season; The Office, last year's Emmy winner for Outstanding Comedy Series and the first series to break out as a digital sensation on iTunes; My Name is Earl, another inventive, Emmy winning comedy success; Deal or No Deal, the first primetime game show since ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to inflate its network's ratings and become a water-cooler favorite; and the smart comedy 30 Rock, an under-performer in the Nielsen ratings that has nevertheless become a media darling and brought much positive press to NBC.
Further, there is positive buzz building for a couple of the 2007-08 season shows Reilly unveiled to advertisers and the press in Manhattan two weeks ago, including the sci-fi drama Journeyman and the sci-fi adventure The Bionic Woman. (Overall, it must be said that NBC's development this past year does not look to have been particularly strong. Still, a network only needs one or two new successes each year to remain healthy.)
Since Reilly gets the credit for his former network's successes he must also share the blame for its failures, including the fact that nobody knows what to make of NBC these days. The network's primetime schedule has become a mad mix of low-budget reality fare, much of it junk, and top-quality scripted dramas and comedies, many with sterling cinematic qualities. This strange state of affairs has more to do with decisions made by management throughout the mighty NBC Universal and its parent company, General Electric, than with Reilly himself.
NBC's low-budget reality stuff -- The Biggest Loser, 1 vs. 100, The Real Wedding Crashers and others -- seems targeted to working-class viewers seeking easy diversions at the end of the day, while its scripted shows appear to be directed toward educated, upscale, tech-obsessed people. The latter are perhaps a more desirable audience, but they are also more particular about what they watch and, as far as I can tell, it is far more difficult to truly measure their viewing choices or habits. How a network can successfully promote its programming to two such wildly divergent viewer bases is a mystery to me.
Interestingly, the man brought in as the new co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and NBC Universal Television Studio, Reveille LLC founder and chairman Ben Silverman, has achieved extraordinary success in recent years by simultaneously developing exactly the kind of low-budget reality fare (The Biggest Loser, Nashville Star, Identity, Date My Mom) and big-budget scripted shows (Ugly Betty, The Office, The Tudors) that currently comprise NBC's mixed-message schedule.
Silverman and his NBCE and NUTS co-chairman Marc Graboff will be looking good if they can somehow clarify and unify the network's identity in the year ahead. But they'll have to come up with another Heroes before comparisons to Reilly are put to rest. He'll be a tough act to follow.
As I think about it, even Reilly's misfires can be defended -- well, some of them, anyway. Surface, E-Ring, The Apprentice: Martha Stewart, Three Wishes and The Book of Daniel, all from the 2005-06 season, and last year's Kidnapped and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, are all shows that "woulda coulda shoulda" worked.
A large audience showed up for the first telecast of Surface in September 2005 on a Monday at 8 p.m. -- with no lead in! Clearly there was an audience for a sci-fi series of its kind, and Reilly knew that. Unfortunately, the Surface show-runners let everybody down, delivering a program that would have been more at home as the third feature in a drive-in triple bill. E-Ring was a Jerry Bruckheimer production. It made all the sense in the world for Reilly to bring it to NBC. Again, the show inexplicably fizzled, as did The Book of Daniel, one of the boldest and ballsiest shows to appear on a broadcast network in years. Three Wishes, a reality series that could be compared to Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, might have been another feel-good success -- were it not for its sub-par production values. As for the famously controlling Martha Stewart, she has nobody to blame but herself for the failure of her lousy Apprentice spin-off, but Reilly deserved credit at the time for nabbing one of the most influential women in the country to star in a show on his network immediately following the completion of her news-making jail sentence.
Kidnapped was a well-made serial that deserved a better time slot last fall. And who could fault Reilly for bringing Aaron Sorkin back to NBC with Studio 60? That series was Sorkin's to screw-up, not Reilly's.
Of course, Reilly delivered his share of irredeemable stinkers during the last few years, including the relationship dramedy Inconceivable and the John Lithgow sitcom Twenty Good Years and a horrid host of reality junk, much of it scheduled last summer. Nobody's perfect. But Reilly made an exciting impact that won't soon be forgotten.
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