Can Chevy Chase Save NBC?

The network's new fall lineup features lots of Jay Leno and other familiar faces—Peter Krause, Craig T. Nelson, Maura Tierney. Plus: Will Chevy Chase be another Alec Baldwin?

We learned a few things yesterday from NBC’s presentation of new programs that may or may not be on its fall schedule. We know that Chevy Chase is going to be a regular on a new show that looks like it might actually be funny, and that NBC Entertainment Co-Chairman Ben Silverman thinks there’s a lot of comedy potential in Joe Biden’s overreaction to the swine-flu outbreak.

The setting was what NBC called its “infront,” because it took place a couple of weeks before the traditional upfronts. The upfronts are a high-stakes effort to convince advertisers that commercials are still worth buying—despite the faltering economy and the digital revolution. If it works, scripted shows with good production values can be made for at least another year or two. So at these annual sessions—attended by thousands of advertisers in venues like Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall—the networks reveal their fall schedules. You remember schedules—those things on a grid with days of the week and times when programs will be on the air? NBC doesn’t have one yet but it’s still in front. (It will reveal its schedule later in the month during the upfronts. Go figure.)

“This is not late-night at 10 p.m.,” promised Mike Pilot, president of sales and marketing. “This is Jay Leno in prime time.”

Silverman, who has established a reputation as NBC Entertainment’s party-hearty co-chairman and who now appears to be growing a beard, said NBC’s mission is “to create culture rather than just reflect it.” That was right before Donald Trump made an appearance to chortle over the previous night’s edition of Celebrity Apprentice. “You had a two-hour show about Chicken of the Sea tuna!” Trump marveled. “They paid a lot of money for it and they couldn’t have been happier!”

“I can’t thank you enough!” Silverman said earnestly. “You exemplify what we do well!”

While NBC’s schedule remains a mystery, clearly some of the six new shows that the network is ordering will not debut in the fall because the network simply doesn’t have enough prime-time real estate. Remember that Jay Leno will be eating up five hours a week with his nightly talk show, so space is limited.

NBC executives had to walk a fine line when it came to Leno. The show will include all the stuff you love about Leno but it will be new and different. “This is not late-night at 10 p.m.,” promised Mike Pilot, president of sales and marketing. “This is Jay Leno in prime time.” And if you feared that Chicken of the Sea might suddenly be in short supply, he assured advertisers that, “Jay is one of the most advertiser-friendly people I know.... He’s not afraid to experiment with live commercials.”

Silverman added that putting Leno at 10 p.m. shows that NBC is “leading the evolution and transformation of our industry.” But one top television agent suspects the real reason NBC is ordering up so many new shows is to generate backup material. NBC may be satisfied with a relatively modest rating on a program that’s this inexpensive, he says, but despite Leno’s friendliness, advertisers are already balking at paying prime-time rates for the show.

NBC didn’t say whether Law & Order or Chuck or Medium will be back and it’s also unclear when NBC will start airing the big new medical drama Trauma, or Parenthood, based on the Ron Howard movie or the rest of NBC’s new shows. Trauma is quaintly expensive and features a lot of stuff blowing up and some ick factor (a severed finger and a blood-drenched child, in the clips). Parenthood includes some familiar faces, including Peter Krause, Maura Tierney, and Craig T. Nelson. There is also Mercy, which could be called Hot Nurses and seems to have the scent of Grey’s Anatomy about it. There’s Day One, which is some sort of post-apocalyptic thing that brings back memories of the short-lived CBS series Jericho. And 100 Questions, a sitcom about a woman who turns to a dating service, which prompts her to recount many amusing moments from her life. It seems that a lot of men have proposed to the heroine, which doesn’t quite seem like a setup that most women at home will find, ahem, engaging.

Among those unveiled, the one that I most look forward to seeing is Community, about a group of misfits in community college. (Bear in mind that clips are misleading, especially when it comes to comedy, and I’ve lived to rue these words before.) NBC is hoping series star Joel McHale (host of E!’s The Soup) will prove worthy to bunk with Steve Carell and Tina Fey. Chevy Chase is in this one and who knows? He could be poised to pull an Alec Baldwin—from fame to obnoxiousness to obscurity to a critically acclaimed sitcom. If not, there could always be a gig hawking Chicken of the Sea on Celebrity Apprentice.

Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.