Fourth-place NBC vows return to Peacock glory days

By Joanne Ostrow

The Denver Post

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 2 2011 6:34 p.m. MDT

Siobhan Finneran, left, watches as Elizabeth McGovern discusses the "Masterpiece" series "Downtown Abbey II" on PBS during the Television Critics Association summer press tour.

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Never has a network executive sounded so humble:

"It's been a very challenging six months for us," NBC president Bob Greenblatt told critics gathered here. "It's no secret NBC is in fourth place. We're working very hard and very aggressively to turn that around."

NBC still counts as the most upscale network; "The Voice" was the No. 1 new show of the season. "Given all the doom and gloom in our industry and for our network, this was a pretty good spring and summer."

NBC threw itself on critics' mercy, essentially begging for patience and expressing faith in the old brand (The Peacock) under new owners (Comcast).

The former Showtime executive noted for a string of edgy cable shows, the new NBC chief professes "a genuine excitement for broadcast TV."

How daring can the network be? For fall, Greenblatt said, "Smash," a "Glee"-like drama about the casting of a Broadway musical, "may be the most adventurous show we do. It also may be the most narrow show we do."

Upbeat PBS: The often desperate and dire PBS offered a sunny picture to TV critics gathered here for the annual summer press marathon.

Ratings are up, the system dodged the latest threat of defunding by Congress, and the season brought a record number of Emmy nominations ("Downtown Abbey" on "Masterpiece" alone scored 11).

Next, PBS sees an opening in the arts, an area mostly abandoned by cable. While Bravo used to be about ballet, music and theater, it's now a repository for real housewives. While A&E used to feature highbrow arts, it's now dedicated to hoarders and bounty hunters.

PBS will step up its arts programming with the PBS Arts Fall Festival, a Friday night series featuring performances from across the country, beginning Oct. 14 with the Minneapolis Guthrie Theater's "H.M.S. Pinafore."

Also on the bill: Cameron Crowe's documentary "Pearl Jam Twenty," the Miami City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, music programs from Cleveland and North Carolina, and a new opera from LA Opera. (Imagine a place for Denver in that lineup — Red Rocks next year?)

PBS seems to be finding its rhythm, accenting more hip and populist cultural fare along with the classics in order to stay in the fight for younger demographics.

Pearl Jam, Woody Allen and '60s pop rock all are subjects of upcoming PBS specials.

Then there's Hugh Laurie singing the blues. TV's Dr. House is narrating and appearing in a film for PBS "Great Performances" celebrating New Orleans and the blues. He's released a companion album, a life-long dream.

"This was a diem I had to carpe," he said of the opportunity.

"Hugh Laurie: Let Them Talk — A Celebration of New Orleans Blues" airs Sept. 30.

The more expected PBS stalwarts are also on tap. Ken Burns, America's TV historian, is focusing his lens on "Prohibition," airing Oct. 2-4. Brian Greene, the scientist who's gone so far as to appear on "The Big Bang Theory" to make physics accessible to the rest of us, has a NOVA special. "The Fabric of the Cosmos," a follow-up to Greene's Peabody-winning "The Elegant Universe," airs Wednesdays in November.

And "Downtown Abbey II" promises another season of glorious British period drama. Expect more romantic entanglements for the star-crossed lovers as the story picks up in 1916: It's World War I and the Grantham family estate has been turned into a convalescence home.

"Downtown" begins Jan. 8. Three more episodes of "Sherlock" are on tap, and six episodes of "Upstairs, Downstairs" are due in 2013.

On the modern side, Masterpiece Contemporary brings "Page Eight," a spy thriller with Bill Nighy and Ralph Fiennes, and "The Song of Lunch," about old flames reunited, with Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman. The clips look delicious.

Perhaps the best news of all for "Masterpiece" is the signing of a sponsor. Viking River Cruises picks up where Mobil left off after 33 years of support. The series has been without an underwriter for seven years.

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