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NBC's shakeup

NBC, mired in fourth place among the broadcast networks and coming off one of the worst ratings sweeps in its entire history, has applied the typical solution: tossing the programming chief off a cliff. It's hard to tell whether he was officially fired or just quit when another executive was brought in over him, but either way Kevin Reilly left NBC Tuesday.

Reillynbc Reilly joined NBC three years ago from FX, where he helped shepherd The Shield and Nip/Tuck onto the air. NBC must have looked like a dream job at the time -- it was at the top of the ratings heap -- but it turned out to be the corporate version of a mansion that's been eaten away from the inside by termites. Friends, the linchpin of the Thursday schedule, was about to retire and other heavy hitters like Frasier and ER had passed their prime. At the same time, NBC was about to unveil a dramatic cost-cutting regime. The Hollywood trade press today is bristling with stories that Reilly could only order up about half as many pilots of prospective new shows each season as the other big broadcast networks.

Despite all that, Reilly's tenure at NBC produced a number of intelligent programs, including Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, Kidnapped, My Name Is Earl, 30 Rock, Heroes, and Friday Night Lights. But the network had trouble attracting audiences for them. Most of those shows are a lot more popular with critics than with viewers. Whether that's the fault of the programming boss or network marketers is a matter best left to students of corporate organization, but it's interesting that Reilly is already being mentioned as a candidate for a top slot at HBO, which is trying to figure out how to replace The Sopranos, Sex And The City and Deadwood. Sounds to me like people in the TV business have the same impression of Reilly that I do -- that he's a smart guy who develops smart shows.

Meanwhile, he's being replaced at NBC by a two-man team: Ben Silverman, head of a production company called Reveille, and Marc Graboff, an NBC veteran. Graboff's expertise is mainly on the business side, while Silverman's company has specialized in cannibalizing foreign shows and regurgitating them as American products -- most notably, The Office and Ugly Betty. He may turn out to be a programming genius, but I keep thinking of a quote from him in the New York Times last year bragging about how many of his company's pilots had been picked up by the networks: "We have the best pilot-to-series ratio in television history. It's spin, I know, but I'm all about pushing Ben right now." Yeah, that's a guy I'd like to work for.

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