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As The Voice and Revolution returns to new episodes, NBC's fate as broadcast network hangs in the balance



Tonight, the TV industry will learn the answer to a pressing question.

Is NBC still a broadcast TV network or just a particularly high-rated cable channel?

That’s a blunt way of referencing the ratings cliff NBC fell off after its three most-watched shows disappeared in winter. Without Sunday Night Football, singing competition The Voice and  new drama Revolution, the peacock network plunged from Number One among viewers aged 18 to 49 in November to fifth place in February – behind its top three broadcast competitotrs and Spanish-language network Univision.

Didn’t help that highly-hyped new shows unveiled in early 2013 such as the soapy crime drama Deception, the Jekyll and Hyde ripoff Do No Harm and presidential comedy 1600 Penn haven’t caught fire with viewers.

And its reinvention of last-year’s anticipated Broadway drama Smash failed so badly the network will move the show to low-watched Saturday nights on April 6 – the equivalent of putting it in hospice care.

(NBC entertainment head Bob Greenblatt is reportedly so upset about the situation he exchanged a series of testy emails with late night host Jay Leno after the Tonight Show star told a series of pointed jokes about the network’s fifth-place status.)

So tonight’s return of The Voice and Revolution are a crucial moment for a network nearly down for the count. Football won’t come back until fall, but NBC might avoid the shame of a fifth-place finish if viewers haven’t lost their love for the network’s singing competition and serialized story about a world without electricity.

The Voice returns in risky fashion, replacing two of its most attention-getting judges, pudgy eccentric Cee Lo Green and flamboyant diva Christina Aguilera. In their place, R&B star Usher and Colombian pop diva Shakira will sit in the show’s trademark red spinning chairs, next to past “winners” Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine and country star Blake Shelton.

If 2013 proved anything, it’s that The Voice’s ratings propped up a lackluster slate of fall shows at NBC, feeding audiences into comedies The New Normal and Matthews Perry’s Go On that the shows never achieved on their own.

As I write this, critics haven’t yet seen the new Voice episodes and may not get a look until it debuts at 8 tonight. But we did see tonight’s episode of Revolution, which promises more of whatever audience liked about it in the fall.

Turns out, there’s a cadre of scientists at the center of the world’s loss of power and there’s two slimy bad guys who seem to be collecting them like trophies. Our team of heroes, led by Billy Burke’s Han Solo-ish fighter Miles Matheson, has just liberated one of these scientists who also happens to be his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Mitchell’s Rachel Matheson.

In the face of a post-apocalyptic drama as riveting and explicit as the Walking Dead, Revolution feels like a cartoon, with characters making choices which seem a lot more about continuing the epic storyline than survival. Still, tonight’s episode offers the death of a character crucial enough that our heroes will soon get another motive: revenge.

It’s not enough to turn me into a fan, but I’m betting it’s enough to hold a good portion of the Voice’s audience in the same way the show managed last year. NBC better never air Revolution away from The Voice, though; they’re likely discover what a real lack of power feels like.

I’m not encouraged by a look at the first four episodes of NBC’s next new series, Hannibal. The concept is stellar; a look at the partnership of effete-yet-brilliant psychologist Hannibal Lecter and FBI profiler Will Graham before the world learns that Lecter is a twisted serial killer who consumes his victims in elaborately-prepared gourmet meals (for fans, it would essentially be a prequel to the films Manhunter and its remake Red Dragon).

Unless you count Laurence Fishburne as FBI boss Jack Crawford, there is no movie star to hold the audience’s attention as Kevin Bacon does in Fox’s serial killer drama The Following. There is, however, lots of gore, including a killer who impales victims on deer antlers and another who peels off parts of victims’ backs to serve as fleshy “wings” transforming them into angels.

Perhaps the gore, increasingly intrusive scary music and Casino Royale alum Mads Mikkelsen -- who offers a particularly bloodless performance as Lecter -- is enough to draw audiences hungry for a new Silence of the Lambs-style story.

But NBC needs more than moody music and explicit crime scenes to become a broadcast network again.

The question at hand tonight, is whether The Voice and Revolution will buy them more time, or serve as the sad capstone to an awful  winter season.

The Voice returns at 8 tonight, Revolution airs at 10 tonight and Hannibal debuts at 10 p.m. April 4. All air on WFLA-Ch. 8.

[Last modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 7:35pm]


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