'Undercovers': NBC's first step toward redemption?

undercovers-pilot.jpgNBC has a lot of work to do for next season, so it makes sense that the network would get started early with the pickup of its spy drama "Undercovers."

As much as getting a piece of its 2010-11 schedule in place, though, the pickup is sending a message that NBC is a safe place to play again for people who make scripted dramas. That alone won't reverse a six-year ratings slump, but it's a start.

Following the short-lived and strange Ben Silverman era and the hot mess that was Jay Leno in primetime -- both of which caused grumbling and in some cases outright hostility in the creative community -- NBC signaled early this year that it was jumping back into scripted drama in a big way with shows like "Undercovers" (from J.J. Abrams and Josh Reims), a "Rockford Files" remake from "House" creator David Shore and shows from David E. Kelley, "Sex and the City" writer Cindy Chupack and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Yes, the boatload of drama pilot orders (10) and the four to six new series pickups that will likely come out of that crop were necessary, given the huge hole NBC dug for itself with the Leno experiment. But Angela Bromstad, who oversees scripted programming for NBC, her boss Jeff Gaspin and other network executives probably also had to do a serious sales job to convince high-profile producers that they were once again welcome.

Of course, having well-respected creators making shows for you is no guarantee that any of them will be hits. NBC already has several critical hits on its schedule -- "Chuck," "Parenthood," its Thursday comedies -- but none of them draw especially big audiences. ("The Office" is in the top 20 in adults 18-49, which is NBC's benchmark, but that's it among its scripted shows.)

The way the network TV business has changed and audiences have fragmented even since the last time that NBC was on top in 2004, it would be foolish to predict that "Undercovers" and whatever else picks up will turn the network around the way "Desperate Housewives," "Lost," "Boston Legal" and midseason show "Grey's Anatomy" did in 2004-05. ABC had fallen hard and fast by overpopulating its schedule with "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," but it hadn't been down for nearly as long as NBC has been now.

NBC will probably do a lot of managing expectations at its upfront, talking about rebuilding and re-establishing itself as the home of quality drama (it's a familiar song). The early pickup for "Undercovers" means NBC can also start the hype train now -- if we were running the network, we'd get promos on the air this week and show more than just a trailer for the series at the upfront on May 17.

Then, you know, make sure the show and everything else it picks up for next year are good.

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Photo credit: NBC