Go behind the scenes as NBC unveils new fall shows. So your pilot has been picked up -- now what? Inside the annual spectacle known as ''upfronts.''

By EW Staff
May 23, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

It may seem like networks choose their schedules by using a chimp, some darts, and a wall of actors’ head shots, but in reality the process is far more complicated and nerve-racking. After ordering dozens of pilots throughout the winter, TV executives carpetbag it to New York to unveil their schedules to advertisers in elaborate presentations called ”upfronts.” At stake for the six networks: the $9 billion plus that advertisers are expected to spend on broadcast-TV spots this year.

Of all the networks, NBC had the hardest sell to make this year — in the past 12 months, it dropped from first to fourth place among young adults, the viewers that advertisers covet the most. As the Peacock made its comeback pitch, we trailed network president Kevin Reilly, the actors starring in two shows that made the schedule, and, of course, a chimp named Bananas. (Just kidding.)

NBC Entertainment President

Kevin Reilly is operating on about three hours of sleep. He’s been living at NBC’s New York headquarters for the past four days, having flown in from his home base in Los Angeles. It’s Friday, May 13, and in 72 hours he’ll have what amounts to a very big, very public coming-out ceremony as The Man Responsible for NBC’s Fate. One year after being crowned heir to the Peacock net’s misfortune (taking over for Jeff Zucker, who ascended the ranks of the newly merged NBC Universal), Reilly is finalizing the first NBC fall schedule that he’s solely responsible for. ”ABC went through an eight-year drought, and CBS took eight years to build back up,” he says. ”We’re not going to take eight years.”

After months of negotiating with stars and watching pilots, he’s whittled around 70 comedy scripts and 45 drama scripts down to 18 contenders that were then filmed. From that group, he’s chosen six (three comedies, three dramas) that he hopes will reverse the network’s slide. On Monday, May 16, he’ll present the new shows to advertisers at Radio City Music Hall.

But first, he has dozens of phone calls to make — to deliver the happy news to producers and stars whose shows made the schedule, and the bad news to those who didn’t make the cut. He’s crammed into a tiny makeshift office, but it’ll do — a phone is all he needs for this business of making (and breaking) dreams.

First up: Jason Lee, the star of My Name Is Earl, a single-camera comedy about a petty thief who wins the lottery and then sets out to adjust his karma by making amends for his shady past. It’s the chanciest offering on the new schedule — and the network’s only new fall comedy (the other two pickups are for midseason). ”It’s going to have a lot of buzz from critics,” says Reilly, ”but I think a lot of regular people are going to like it too.”

His assistant announces that Lee’s on the line, and Reilly picks up the phone. ”Is this Jason Lee of NBC?” he says with a chuckle. ”You’ve gotta get comfortable with that now.” Pause. ”The performance was so winning that everybody who sees it goes, I love that guy…. You were so right to grow the mustache.” The call ends, and Reilly sighs. ”Okay, one down, 250 to go.”

Next up, a call to Jonathan Littman, an executive producer with Jerry Bruckheimer on E-Ring, a big-budget Pentagon drama starring Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Hopper. While the show is getting a pickup, there is some bad news: Sarah Clarke (24), who plays Bratt’s wife, will have to go — because female test audiences didn’t want Bratt’s character to be married. ”[The relationship] didn’t have a place to go,” Reilly explains after the call, ”so we’re going to change the story around a little bit.”

He fiddles with a paper clip and sighs again. ”The longer we put the tougher ones off, the worse they’ll be.” So, how does it feel to tell someone their pilot isn’t going to fly? ”It’s hard, especially with people you respect,” says Reilly, who wouldn’t allow a reporter in the room as he made the ”no, thanks” calls. ”I can’t tell you there haven’t been situations where I’ve sort of relished it. Like, ‘You know that project where you were an impossible egomaniac? It’s dead!”’

One sleepless weekend of meetings, calls, and more meetings later, Reilly is on stage at Radio City. The presentation flashes by in a whirlwind of montages, mea culpas for this past season’s miscues, and bar graphs representing NBC’s ratings with ”upscale” (read: rich) audiences. ”We probably won’t fix everything in one shot,” he tells the packed concert hall. ”But don’t bet against us.” — Jennifer Armstrong