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Troubled NBC sees salvation in 'The Voice' season 4 premiere

"The Voice" season 4 judges are, from left,

"The Voice" season 4 judges are, from left, Shakira, Adam Levine, Blake Shelton and Usher. Host Carson Daly is on the right. Credit: NBC

Can NBC be saved?

Sure. Of course. Yes.

In fact, salvation arrives Monday night.

With two new judges (Shakira and Usher), new vitality and a whole lot of fans, "The Voice" returns at 8 to convert a floundering, unwatched expanse of airtime -- NBC prime on Mondays and Tuesdays -- into the best piece of real estate on television. The second half of the successful freshman drama "Revolution" returns, too (at 10). Success, if not victory, is assured over the next three months. NBC won November sweeps last fall for the first time in nine years, thanks to the previous edition of "The Voice" and "Sunday Night Football."

But for NBC, the bigger, somewhat scarier question is: Then what?

You're not reading for the first time in this column that you haven't been watching NBC. Nobody has been. Broadcasting's oldest (86 this year) and once proudest network is finally emerging from its toughest three-month period ever -- a stretch so barren that Univision at one point captured more viewers in prime time. In a brief vertiginous moment, NBC had fallen so far so fast that it was no longer the fourth-place broadcast network, but the fifth.

Which brings us to the "then what?" As you know, television has long lived by a simple and irrefutable rule that can easily be scrawled on a cocktail napkin: "One hit at a time." Get that one hit and build from there. "Cheers" began the process of ending NBC's long, ruinous drought of the '70s when it joined the schedule in 1982. Within two years, it would anchor one of the most successful Thursday lineups ("The Cosby Show," "Family Ties," "Cheers," "Night Court," "Hill Street Blues") in TV history.

But network TV is no longer commanded by "audience flow," or scheduling stunts, or a reliance on predictable viewer habits. Those barely exist, and are hardly applicable to younger viewer habits, leaving NBC in a deeper hole than ever.

But the "one hit at a time" rule holds, and looking ahead over the next few weeks, this is what could fill the hole. Bryan Fuller's "Hannibal," essentially a prequel to the 1991 film "The Silence of the Lambs," arrives April 4 at 10p.m.

Another anticipated newcomer, "Crossbones," based on the Colin Woodard book "The Republic of Pirates," was expected to arrive midseason but was delayed after Hugh Laurie backed out and John Malkovich arrived. So "Crossbones" is more likely a fall arrival. Meanwhile, "Ready for Love," the Bill and Giuliana Rancic-hosted dating reality show, will preview April 9 after "The Voice."

And what about the fall? Possibilities then include a Miranda Cosgrove sitcom, another starring Krysten Ritter and Alfred Molina or yet another with Parker Posey, J.K. Simmons and Harold Perrineau. Meanwhile, "The Office" showrunner Greg Daniels has a new single-camera comedy, too. In drama, expect a modern-day "Hatfields & McCoys" and even a remake of "Ironside," NBC's late-'60s cop drama with Blair Underwood as the wheelchair-bound detective.

But if NBC is looking for a miracle, look no further than Michael J. Fox, returning to TV in a comedy about a TV news anchor struggling with Parkinson's disease.

Could Fox save NBC again? (His "Family Ties" was a key player in NBC's early-'80s revival.) Check back with us in September, but for the moment, it looks like the network has turned its lonely eyes to an enduring symbol of its glory days.

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