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Reilly Finally Free to Join NBC

Aug 25, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Kevin Reilly hasn’t started his new job yet as top development executive at NBC, but his reputation has already lured some top-rate talent to the network.
Robb Cullen and Mark Cullen, the brothers who created the Emmy-nominated FX series “Lucky,” signed a two-script deal with NBC Studios to develop a sitcom and a drama for NBC next fall.
“Lucky” was developed under Mr. Reilly, who is finishing his contract as FX Entertainment president this week. The series garnered much critical acclaim and a comedy writing Emmy nomination for the Cullens, but was canceled earlier this summer due to low ratings. The Cullens are also creators and executive producers of Spike TV’s animated half-hour “Gary the Rat.”
“We’re more than lucky to have sealed this deal with the Cullen brothers,” NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said. “They’re fantastic talent who will ad greatly to NBC Studios’ strong roster of creative talent.”
Mr. Reilly’s appointment as president of prime-time development for NBC Entertainment was announced in June, but FX wouldn’t release him from his contract early. He is expected to start sometime the week of Labor Day.
Although Mr. Reilly hasn’t yet set up shop at NBC, the fact that he will be there has been attractive to writers and producers pitching shows.
Warren Littlefield, who sold the J.H. Wyman-penned drama “Repo Cohen” to NBC this month, said Mr. Reilly’s soon-to-be presence at NBC was a big factor in selling the show to the network. Two other networks were bidding on it.
“He knows when to really trust a producer’s instinct and take a risk on an idea and the people executing it,” said Mr. Littlefield, who was president of NBC Entertainment during Mr. Reilly’s previous tenure at NBC, in the early ’90s. “NBC was aggressive [in its bidding], but it was also the belief that it was Kevin’s time and he would be a shepherd for our project. If you know Kevin, you know it’s a good match for his sensibility.”
NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said NBC has always attracted the “best and the brightest” talent, but Mr. Reilly “makes it an even more attractive place to be.”
“There’s a genuine sense of excitement about his pending arrival,” Mr. Zucker said.
This summer, NBC has made numerous other development moves, including sealing a deal for “Joey,” a “Friends” spinoff starring Matt LeBlanc; giving a script commitment to “The Red Team,” a drama from Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Evan Katz; signing Kathy Griffin to a talent holding deal to develop the sitcom “The D-List”; and signing Heather Locklear to a talent holding deal.
While those moves were made without Mr. Reilly at the development helm, Mr. Zucker said, “He’s aware of everything we’ve been discussing and making deals on. I think he’s been aware of everything we’ve done this summer.”
Mr. Reilly’s inability to work for NBC over the summer was inconvenient for creative talent pitching the network, but most say they don’t think the delay will hurt NBC’s development this year.
“He hasn’t been on the firing line of FX for the past few months,” Mr. Littlefield said. “He’s had the ability of being able to take a step back without having to run the organization and think strategically about NBC. Do you start the race a half a lap behind? Yeah, but you’re really well rested. Your batteries are charged. I suspect his vision will have a clarity that some of his competition doesn’t have.”
Mr. Zucker said the delay in Mr. Reilly’s arrival has not been an issue even though pitch season has already gotten under way. “There’s not a single project that we’ve missed out [on] or not gotten at all,” he said. “We’re feeling really positive already at this stage in the development cycle, so there has been no issue.”
Other pickup decisions that were made before Mr. Reilly’s tenure include midseason sitcoms “Come to Papa” and “Tracy Morgan” and “Father of the Pride,” a CGI-animated half-hour from DreamWorks Television for fall 2004.
Though NBC has won seven of the past eight seasons in adults 18 to 49 and is home to numerous critical favorites, Mr. Reilly is not walking into an easy job.
“He can only go down,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP, corporate research director, at Horizon Media. “NBC certainly has been No. 1 in adults 18 to 49 for a number of years. They have the most upscale audience of any network. He’s going to have to maintain that while taking the network in other directions, because some of these shows, like `Friends’ and `Frasier,’ are probably in their last seasons.
The Elusive Hit
“Outside of `[The] West Wing’ and `Will & Grace,’ they’ve had a hard time coming up with hits-real top 10 network shows.”
The biggest challenge facing Mr. Reilly will be to create sitcom hits.
“NBC needs a successful eight-comedy schedule if they want to continue to win in adults 18 to 49, because 52 weeks a year, comedies will repeat well for you and deliver the young-adult audience,” said one industry insider.
Launching sitcoms has been tough for all the broadcast networks the past five years, but the inability of NBC to create any hit sitcoms other than “Will & Grace” and “Scrubs” has been devastating to its Tuesday night lineup.
With “Friends”-the top-rated 18 to 49 comedy on the air-NBC has wasted the perfect platform on Thursday nights to launch new sitcoms by generating a string of duds, such as “Union Square,” “Stark Raving Mad,” “Inside Schwartz” and “Cursed.”
NBC hasn’t launched a successful sitcom on Thursday night, giving it limited options of moving another established series to Tuesday nights to help “Frasier” anchor the night. That lack of comedy support has in turn hurt “Frasier’s” ratings, which dipped 23 percent year to year in adults 18 to 49. ABC’s “According to Jim” was beating “Frasier” by the end of last season.
NBC did move “Good Morning, Miami,” which launched on Thursdays last year, to Tuesday nights this fall. It’s debatable whether it can be called an anchor. Many critics charge the show only put up good ratings numbers because it followed “Will & Grace,” and it was given the protected Tuesday time slot behind “Frasier,” indicating that NBC didn’t think it was strong enough to open the night at 8 p.m.
While NBC has struggled to find hits, CBS has taken full advantage, challenging NBC’s Thursday dominance with the young-skewing “Survivor,” the most-watched drama on television, “CSI,” and “Without a Trace.”
In the 2001-02 season NBC had a 53 percent ratings advantage over CBS in adults 18 to 49. Between NBC’s ratings erosion on the night and CBS’s young-adult growth, CBS cut that gap to 21 percent in 2002-03 season. With “CSI” and “Survivor” in their fourth years and “Without a Trace” expected to grow in its second year, CBS’s Thursday lineup is substantially younger than NBC’s.
Fox has also given NBC a run for its money in adults 18 to 49. Powered by reality shows “American Idol” and “Joe Millionaire,” Fox came within two-tenths of a ratings point of NBC in the adults 18 to 49 race. NBC finished the season with a 4.5 rating to Fox’s 4.3, winning by 5 percent. That’s about the same as the 6 percent advantage NBC held over Fox two years ago. (Last year, NBC had a 33 percent advantage in the demo, but much of that can be attributed to the highly rated Winter Olympic Games which NBC aired.)
NBC has had better luck on the drama side, with two freshman shows-“American Dreams” and “Boomtown”-returning this fall. However, unless the show has a “Law & Order” in front of the title, no new drama has been a bona fide hit since “West Wing” five years ago.
And “West Wing” has had its own drama this year, with ratings sliding 27 percent year to year and creator Aaron Sorkin’s leaving the show. Hit hard by competition from ABC’s “The Bachelor,” NBC’s Wednesday night ratings were down 23 percent this year. (ABC, on the other hand, was up 28 percent for the night.)
Aging Shows
The biggest difference between NBC today and five years ago is that many of the network’s biggest hit sh
ows are aging. “There’s just a lot of nights where they don’t have the engines,” the industry insider said. “A year ago CBS attacked them at 10 o’clock. Those seeds that were planted will certainly have a sophomore surge. They will continue to erode the 10 o’clock programming.”
Bringing in Mr. Reilly could be one of Mr. Zucker’s smartest moves, industry executives say. It only takes two or three hits to greatly improve a network’s schedule, and Mr. Reilly has a strong track record. At FX, he launched the network’s first original drama series, “The Shield,” which got rave reviews and landed star Michael Chiklis an Emmy.
He also developed “Lucky” and “Nip/Tuck,” another critically acclaimed drama that’s been pulling great numbers since it launched earlier this summer. Before FX, Mr. Reilly was president of Brad Grey Television, where he developed the pilot for HBO hit “The Sopranos.” And in his previous stint at NBC he developed such series as “ER.”
Mr. Reilly will also have a big promotional advantage next summer for his new slate-the 2004 Summer Olympics, which start Aug. 13.