Summer comes early for NBC

By James Hibberd

March 5, 2008

NBC is getting a running start on its summer original programming.

The network will premiere three series -- the new seasons of "American Gladiators" and "Last Comic Standing" and the debut of "Fear Itself" -- during the May sweep, followed by four others in June.

The goal is to wrap up most of NBC's summer original series in time to focus the network on complete coverage of the Beijing Olympics in August.

"We have an embarrassment of riches," said Mitch Metcalf, NBC executive vp scheduling. "We have a great number of returning shows this summer; we got the Olympics, which takes up some of the real estate; and we have the ability to get a jump on Memorial Day. This enables us to get a running start on the summer."

The reality-and-Olympics combo will be promoted as part of NBC's "All-American Summer." Several of the titles will get supersized treatment, with NBC's summer flagship "America's Got Talent" expanded to more than 30 hours total. For the first time, USA Network import "Nashville Star" and "Last Comic Standing" will run as 90-minute episodes every week.

The expansion follows a reality trend where 90s are the new 60s. Networks increasingly are bulking up unscripted shows beyond the traditional one-hour weekly time period. After Fox's megahit "American Idol" spread to three nights a week, expansion strategies were adopted by ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," NBC's "Deal or No Deal" and "The Biggest Loser."

"Nineties are a good thing," Metcalf said. "Reality shows tend to build in each half-hour."

NBC also will scatter original episodes of "Deal" throughout summer for the first time, using the popular game show to build a lead-in audience for premiere episodes.

Between launching summer shows in May and pushing in-season stable "Deal" into summer, the lineup could be seen as making good on NBC's vow to adopt a more year-around scheduling strategy.

Here are the premiere dates:

"American Gladiators,"
hosted by Hulk Hogan and Leila Ali, will resume in the same 8 p.m. Monday slot it dominated earlier this season. There's a two-hour premiere May 12, then 90-minute episodes each week thereafter.

"Last Comic Standing" will premiere at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, May 22, then move to 8 p.m.

"Fear Itself" will air at 10 p.m. Thursdays starting May 29.

"Nashville Star" will begin Monday, June 9. NBC also announced that the show's winner will get to perform at the Olympics.

New series "Celebrity Circus" will launch with a two-hour premiere at 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 11, then resume as a one-hour show the following week at the same time. The show will have celebrities training for a Cirque du Soleil-style performance troupe. Each week the as-yet-unannounced celebrity participants will compete head-to-head to successfully complete various critics acts.

Last summer's highest-rated original series, "America's Got Talent," launches with a pair of two-hour episodes at 9 p.m. June 24 and July 1. For the show's third season, NBC has added a talent search portion to the show, with episodes set in four cities where judges will seek out contestants. Series resumes with hourlong episodes at 9 p.m. July 8. The show will go on hiatus during the Olympics, then return Tuesday, Aug. 26, for the performance episodes, with the results show starting at 8 p.m. Aug. 27. "We'll keep the show alive promotionally during the Olympics, and it could come back even stronger with some new viewers," Metcalf said.

"The Baby Borrowers," which NBC originally scheduled for midseason, will premiere at 8 p.m. June 25.