LOS ANGELES — There may not be a worse time in history to be a broadcast network television executive.
These days, competition comes from all sides, as cable television and online streaming sites like Netflix erase the distinctions that often kept viewers glued to the big broadcasters.
Consider the words of Jennifer Salke, the latest NBC executive handed the seemingly impossible task of salvaging the network's audience at a time when viewership seems to dip 4 to 7 percent every year.
"The cynicism against networks from the viewing audience is just bigger than ever, given the popularity of all the cable material," said Salke, whose official title in president of NBC Entertainment. "They expect the stuff to not be any good. We've trained them to expect stuff to be pulled off the schedule, so they approach it as, 'It's a network show. How good could it really be?' "
This explains why the network's new mantra revealed to TV critics gathered here for the summer press tour sounded more like a note of surrender: The year of improvement.
"We're the only broadcast network flat from the previous season," said Bob Greenblatt, Salke's boss as chairman of NBC Entertainment. "I know one could (ask) how good is it to celebrate being flat? But at this point, flat is the new up."
NBC seems a sad, perfect example of what ails network TV. Back in the day, a broadcast network's prerogative was simple: It was the Big Tent, a place where all viewers gathered for the only shows that really mattered, providing free entertainment and binding us all around a communal, electronic hearth.
Few shows draw those big numbers anymore and most people pay cable systems for TV. Everyone agrees a radical reinvention of the broadcast network is in order.
And no one has the slightest clue how to do it.
So NBC's big revelations during press conferences here Saturday felt more like a trip back to the future, chasing trends established by competitors. Since CBS hit with its version of superstar novelist Stephen King's Under the Dome, NBC will do a new version of King's 1987 book The Tommyknockers (already done as a miniseries on ABC 20 years ago).
Other miniseries will come on Hillary Clinton, Cleopatra, a new version of Rosemary's Baby, and Plymouth, the story of the Pilgrims as told by Survivor and The Voice executive producer, Mark Burnett. In fact, NBC also filched a sequel to Burnett's miniseries The Bible after the original was a hit for the History channel.
The two biggest stars on NBC's fall schedule are ex-Will & Grace star Sean Hayes and Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox. Will they try reviving shoulder pads and big hair next?
The key, Greenblatt said, is creating events people want to see in the moment. "If there's a Wallenda out there, please call us," he joked, referencing another big hit from cable, Sarasota resident Nik Wallenda's walk across a gorge near the Grand Canyon for Discovery channel. "Anything that feels like an event — it's happening now, you've got to watch it — we want."
One of NBC's best ideas for this fall may be bringing Fox back to television in a surprisingly well-done family comedy that references the star's own struggle with the degenerative nerve disorder known as Parkinson's disease. Coming after a string of successful guest appearances, including Emmy nominations three years running for his role on CBS' The Good Wife as super shark lawyer Louis Canning, The Michael J. Fox Show places the former Family Ties and Spin City star in a setting ripped mostly from his real life.
Facing critics here, Fox allowed that his new show, which features a TV reporter returning to work after taking a break when his Parkinson's tremors emerged, feels "a little meta." But there's no denying the goodwill the public feels for Fox, who handled his own Parkinson's-induced break from show business with grace.
"The struggle I had is the struggle (my character) Mike Henry had; you want to go back, you want to do serious work, you don't want to be a novelty," said Fox, whose current Parkinson's symptoms lead him to just look restless and fidgety, constantly in a state of movement. "I think Mike Henry avoids it, I think I avoided it, by just taking the work seriously, working hard, trying to do the best show we could and not cruising on any kind of perceived goodwill."
Fox said he and show's producers weren't worried about outraging people or maneuvering around the horror others often see in a lifelong malady.
"A lot of times when you have a disability, one of the things you deal with is other people's projections of what your experience is, and people projecting on what they think it is, and their fear about it, and not seeing the experience you're having," Fox said. "(With Parkinson's), there's nothing horrifying about it to me. There's nothing on the surface horrible about someone with a shaky hand. There's nothing horrible about someone in their life saying, 'God, I'm really tired of this shaky hand thing' and me saying, 'Me, too.' That's our reality. We have no control."
Fox's show might not be the answer to what ails network TV, but it seems like a good first step.
But even if it works well, NBC still will face the same question bedeviling most every broadcast network these days: