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NBC betting on Aaron Sorkin’s new drama

Other new shows include Tina Fey comedy, football drama
/ Source: The Associated Press

Between two new series that offer backstage looks at people in television and some of its digital initiatives, NBC will be letting its viewers know a lot about what it’s like to work at a network.

(MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)

On Monday, NBC became the first of the big broadcast networks to unveil its fall schedule; ABC, CBS, Fox and the CW will follow this week. NBC’s executives are hoping to revitalize a network that has slipped to fourth pace because of its inability to develop new hits.

The network is revamping its Thursday night lineup, the linchpin of its “must-see TV” golden years, and hopes Sunday night football will also add strength to the schedule.

Its biggest hope next fall is “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” a new series from “The West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin. With Sorkin’s pedigree and an all-star cast that includes Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Amanda Peet, the network scheduled it for the key slot of Thursday night at 9 p.m.

The stars will play the backstage operators behind a network sketch-comedy show.

“There was so much buzz on this thing I was starting to get a little freaked out,” said a confident Kevin Reilly, NBC entertainment president. “Well, not anymore.”

NBC will also introduce “30 Rock,” the title a reference to the network’s Manhattan address at Rockefeller Center. Tina Fey, head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” developed and will star in the series about the backstage world of a network comedy. Reilly said he wasn’t worried that NBC was repeating itself, saying the tones of the two series are very different.

“If they were two cop shows, nobody would waste a minute of breath on it,” Reilly said.

During NBC’s presentation to thousands of advertisers at Radio City Music Hall on Monday, NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker broke new ground by spending considerable time talking about the network’s digital initiatives.

They range from “Webisodes” being produced with the cast of “The Office,” a game where “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” viewers can help solve a criminal mystery, and — you guessed it — a feature that offers computer users an online look at what’s going on behind the scenes at “Saturday Night Live” while each week’s show is being produced.

NBC Universal will launch a new broadband comedy channel this summer, with current and classic material. NBC and cable partners at Bravo and Sci Fi will also begin showing several episodes of current series online before they reach TV. (NBC Universal is a joint venture of General Electric Co. and Vivendi Universal.)

At Radio City, NBC executives devoted more time to showing an Internet-only feature that will be available on Conan O’Brien’s Web site than they did talking about long-running TV hits “ER” and “Law & Order.”

“We have put a ton of thought and a ton of effort into the new digital world,” Zucker said.

On the TV side, NBC’s only major new success this year — Howie Mandel’s game show “Deal or No Deal” — will be on Monday and Friday nights in the fall. After the football season ends, NBC will air “The Apprentice” and a Simon Cowell-created talent contest with Regis Philbin as host on Sunday nights.

The network is trying three new dramas in the fall: “Friday Night Lights,” an adaptation of the popular book built around a Texas high school football team; “Kidnapped,” a thriller about the abduction of a rich New York teenager; and “Heroes,” about a group of people with superhuman powers.

Reilly called it a “banner year” for NBC development, but that didn’t stop a series of deprecating jokes about the network’s fortunes — some with real bite.

“I may be the highest-paid temp on television — except maybe for Kevin Reilly,” said B.J. Novak, cast member of “The Office.”

“Scrubs” and “Crossing Jordan” received full-season orders, although they are not on the schedule. NBC is canceling the “Friends” spinoff “Joey,” the sci-fi drama “Surface” and producer Dick Wolf’s show about youthful prosecutors, “Conviction.”

NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams laid out a challenge to colleague Katie Couric, who will soon compete with him as the “CBS Evening News” anchor.

“When we meet again in this place a year from now, you’ll still be looking at the number one evening newscast,” Williams said.

Other new NBC series:

—“The Black Donnellys,” a drama about four Irish mobsters in New York, will be a midseason replacement for “ER” so the medical drama doesn’t have to run repeats.

—“Raines,” a police drama starring Jeff Goldblum as a Los Angeles detective, will air Sundays after the football season ends.

—”20 Good Years,” a buddy comedy starring John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor who vow to live life as if each day is their last.

—“Andy Barker, P.I.,” Andy Richter tries again in the sitcom world, this time with old friend Conan O’Brien as co-writer. He plays an accountant mistaken for a private investigator who decides to do the new job in this midseason entry.

—“The Singles Table,” a midseason comedy built around a group of singles who are seated together at a wedding.