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NBC Counting on New Series From 'West Wing' Creator

NBC is betting on Aaron Sorkin's new tale of backstage intrigue at a TV comedy show and three new serialized dramas to lead the network out of a ratings slump caused by its inability to develop new hits.

The network is revamping its Thursday night lineup, the linchpin of its "must-see TV" golden years, and hopes Sunday night football will also add strength to the schedule.

NBC finished a first-ever fourth in the ratings last year and is looking at a similar showing this season, with Howie Mandel's game show "Deal or No Deal" the only notable new success. That game will be on the schedule twice next fall, Monday and Friday nights.

The network also took the wraps off an aggressive online strategy. NBC Universal will launch a new broadband comedy channel this summer, with current and classic material. NBC and cable partners at Bravo and Sci Fi will also begin showing several episodes of current series online before they reach TV. (NBC Universal is a joint venture of General Electric Co. and Vivendi Universal.)

NBC was the first of the broadcast networks, including the fledgling CW network that will start operations in September, to announce a fall schedule this week.

"In all candor, I think it's been a banner year in NBC development," Kevin Reilly, NBC entertainment president, said Monday. "We hit the gold mine this year."

That's what advertisers, who will commit to billions of dollars of commercial time over the next few weeks in the process known as the upfront, are most eager to see from NBC. Sorkin's show "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is the most prominent new series.

Sorkin, creator of "The West Wing," brings Bradley Whitford from that series to his new show, along with Matthew Perry of "Friends" and Amanda Peet. It's about the turmoil and romance backstage at a network comedy sketch show, and NBC is telegraphing its importance by scheduling it at 9 p.m. on Thursdays — once the time slot of "Cheers" and "Seinfeld."

NBC also scheduled "30 Rock," a comedy that Tina Fey of "Saturday Night Live" wrote and stars in, about the backstage world of a network comedy. Reilly said he wasn't worried about two new similar series, saying the tone is very different.

"If they were two cop shows, nobody would waste a minute of breath on it," Reilly said.

NBC is moving its two promising Thursday comedies, "My Name is Earl" and "The Office," up an hour to begin at 8 p.m. While "ER" returns at 10 p.m., NBC won't air repeats of the long-running medical show. "ER" will split its run with a new drama, "The Black Donnellys," about Irish mobsters.

Three other new dramas the network will introduce in the fall are "Friday Night Lights," an adaptation of the popular book built around a Texas high school football team; "Kidnapped," a thriller about the abduction of a rich New York teenager; and "Heroes," about a group of people with superhuman powers.

The introduction of National Football League games on Sunday nights gives NBC strength on what has been a weak night. When football ends, NBC will bring back "The Apprentice" with Donald Trump in Los Angeles, and a talent show with Regis Philbin as host that is getting a summer run starting in June.

"Regis is the new Ed Sullivan," Reilly said.

"Scrubs" and "Crossing Jordan" received full-season orders, although they are not on the schedule. That means each show will likely replace others that fail.

NBC is canceling the "Friends" spinoff "Joey," the sci-fi drama "Surface" and producer Dick Wolf's show about youthful prosecutors, "Convicted."

NBC's position as the first network introducing its schedule means it may make adjustments upon seeing what its rivals do in the coming days, Reilly said.

Other new series picked up by NBC:

—"Raines," a police drama starring Jeff Goldblum as a Los Angeles detective, is on tap for midseason.

—"20 Good Years," a buddy comedy starring John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor who vow to live life as if each day is their last.

—"Andy Barker, P.I.," Andy Richter tries again in the sitcom world, this time with old friend Conan O'Brien as co-writer. He plays an accountant mistaken for a private investigator who decides to do the new job in this midseason entry.

—"The Singles Table," a midseason comedy built around a group of singles who are seated together at a wedding.