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NBC's bets its fall future on singing and smart women; but are these female-friendly images?

If you had to sum up NBC's strategy for the next TV season in one phrase, it might be this:

Singing and smart women.

One look at the new schedule for the 2011-12 season released by the Peacock Network Sunday -- developed under former Showtime executive Bob Greenblatt as new entertainment chairman -- reveals all. There's a new, Glee-style drama centered on the development of a Broadway musical on Marilyn Monroe, Smash, the return of the network's Glee-style singing competition The Sing Off and a protected, featured spot for NBC's only real hit in 2011, The Voice.

And among NBC's six new shows planned for this fall, four of them feature women as stars or subjects: Christina Applegate as a new mom in Up All Night (from SNL veteran Emily Spivey and co-starring SNL alum Maya Rudolph), Maria Bello recreating Helen Mirren's classic role in an American version of the British TV hit Prime Suspect, comic Whitney Cummings in the self-titled sitcom Whitney, and a '60s-set drama about the rise of Hugh Hefner's swinging bachelor lifestyle brand, The Playboy Club.

Later in the year, the network has a comedy based on one of comic Chelsea Handler's books, Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea.

Combined with Tina Fey's acclaimed 30 Rock (held until midseason due to Fey's pregnancy), Amy Poehler's Parks and Recreation and Kathy Bates' Harry's Law, NBC may have more female-centered shows than the big network which targets them specifically, ABC.

But will these shows offer images of women that attract female viewers? Or will they feel more like the kind of women men mostly want to see?

That question surfaces mostly urgently with Cummings and Handler's shows, reflecting the controversies both comics have faces as standup performers. Both are beautiful women with well-earned reputations for cracking jokes about sex and bodily functions raunchy enough to make Will Ferrell blush. So will their series feel like empowerment or just another way to reel in men with attractive women and sex jokes?

Expect this idea to gain traction with the debut of The Playboy Club, a series which seems to glorify the male-centered world of wealth, easy sex and entitlement embodied by the world Hefner built around his men's magazine.

While Mad Men is a series which often shows how limited men were by the sexist rules imposed by '50s mores, Playboy Club faces a steeper hill -- outlining how Hefner's swinging style presaged the sexual revolution while remaining clear-eyed about a media empire built on a nude magazine and clubs where women serve men drinks in bunny suits.

Most surprising about NBC's new shows may be their lack of diversity in lead characters, just one season after the network had its most ethnically diverse slate of new shows in a long while.

With series such as Undercovers, Outlaw, Law & Order: Los Angeles and The Event out the door, NBC seems to have less taste for trying to reflect the nation's growing diversity in its own new programs.

It may exactly the lesson advocates for on screen diversity hoped the TV industry wouldn't learn. Sometimes, the most powerful proof of real equality, is the ability to get another shot, even after you fail.

As its new slate of female-centered shows takes flight, I hope that's a lesson NBC keeps in mind.

Posted by deggans at 7:08:03 am on May 16, 2011