There's a blueprint available for saving network television. And it lies in an unlikely place: the struggles of fourth-place network NBC. Stop laughing. What ails network TV in general is what's really hurting the onetime home of Must-See-TV: a lack of inspired ideas, inability to break a hit drama, and a lineup of crackling comedies that struggle to draw a broad audience. We've already seen half of the network's attempt to reboot with a lineup of unreality shows unveiled Sunday, America's Next Great Restaurant and Celebrity Apprentice. Made necessary by the offseason loss of Sunday Night Football, these shows feel more like tourniquet than a way forward — a rearranging of deck chairs trying to spin ratings gold out of Gary Busey's rants and Donald Trump's questionable hairline. So the challenge is clear: Save network TV by saving NBC. Here's Dr. Deggans' five-point prescription, which includes some bitter medicine.
Stop with the comic book stuff
NBC's The Event returns at 8 tonight, continuing its complex tale of a long-hidden U.S. conspiracy to imprison aliens in a Guantanamo-style detention center. Unfortunately, you can almost feel the tight budgets forcing The Event to become a typical action/suspense drama, with just enough explosions and political intrigue to feel like a bad 24 clone. None of that changes in tonight's two-hour episode, bringing the show back after a three-month break that will test the memories of its most ardent fans. NBC keeps walking down this road to disappointing results. The spy comedy Chuck is a fun romp and the comic fanboy in me wants to love just-canceled superhero adventure The Cape. But The Cape played more like a superhero parody, trapped in its own world of nonsensical plots and shoddy effects, mostly highlighting how much better movies are at science fiction and superhero stuff. Just give it a rest, dudes.
More TV veterans in exciting new projects
The only relatively new, non-sports related bright spots on NBC's schedule are Parenthood and Harry's Law. And while David E. Kelley's legal drama too often feels like a thin ripoff of his last crazy lawyer dramedy, Boston Legal, it's scored by giving Oscar winner Kathy Bates lots of running room. Likewise with Parenthood, which has handed Peter Krause (Six Feet Under), Monica Potter (Boston Legal), Craig T. Nelson (Coach) and Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) some of their juiciest material in years.
Better broad comedies
NBC's Thursday night is a wonderful lineup of mostly smart comedies, but they have long struggled to draw the kind of broad audiences attracted by simpler stuff such as CBS' Big Bang Theory. With Charlie Sheen's Two and Half Men in question, there's an opening for better comedies with broad appeal, like ABC's Modern Family. Run with it.
Handle 10 p.m. already
Parenthood and Harry's Law are game efforts, but Law & Order: SVU is aging badly and The Office will soon lose star Steve Carell. Ratings show that every network is struggling with 10 p.m., as cable hits such as Walking Dead and Jersey Shore steal all the buzz. Time for NBC to recapture its Hill Street Blues legacy and develop a new drama that breaks a few boundaries.
Handle Fridays already
No one gets great ratings on this night, so it might not be fair to single out NBC. But a lineup of unreality shows and Dateline NBC won't cut it. I'd love to see Saturday Night Live standouts like Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig or Andy Samberg get a shot at Tina Fey-level glory with new comedies here. If you're going to get bad ratings anyway, why not do it trying something new?
The Social Whirl
Picks, pans and punditry from the news feeds
Watoto From the Nile. Sometimes it takes a little child to show adults the way. Or several. Watoto from the Nile is a trio from Baltimore — aged 10, 9 and 5 — who are the daughters of outspoken activist=record label owner Jabari Natur (he says the word "watoto" is Swahili for "children.") The girls have stirred interest in the hip-hop world with an amazing YouTube video going viral that gently criticizes crass hip hop star Lil' Wayne for "calling women out their name," and glorifying drug use. Sample lyric: "And people say 'No to drugs, but tell me who should I trust?' You or them? Are you promoting something? It's time our people stop the fronting." As a bonus, the music is sly and compelling too, based on Wayne's own tune, I'm Single. Only question left: Is "Mr. Wayne" listening? (Many thanks to Times researcher Caryn Baird for first tipping me to this.) www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-T-FVR0WZw.