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TCAs: NBC chucks the new...for the past; but why?

For NBC, it's back to the future this

For NBC, it's back to the future this fall with a series starring actor Michael J. Fox in "The Michael J. Fox Show." (July 27, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.  -- NBC wrapped (and rapped) its portion of the TV Critics Tour Saturday, and the overall impression  is generally a good one. The pilots look better than last season, and the network's confidence and expectations a little stronger.

The fall is another matter -- and as everyone knows, the deeper the hole, the harder it is to climb and claw one's way out. But still, it helps if you have a few solid cinder blocks to pile up to help your scramble out. The vibe among critics seems generally positive this year while last year it was relentlessly downbeat and negative; the vibe then was  accurate.

Will this one be as well? NBC's strategy is fairly obvious: Return the "broad" to broadcasting. Gone are niche comedies, replaced by ones starring the most veteran of veterans -- Mike O'Malley and Michael J. Fox. A certain degree of nostalgia and yesteryear are back (from James Spader, who would doubtless disdain the yesteryear tag, but still .?.?. to "Ironside," and Blair Underwood, shades of "L.A. Law.")

"Parenthood" is airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. -- pretty much exactly where it should air -- which is all reminiscent of a time when NBC aired other fine dramas in that very same time slot. The network is going big, big, big on special events -- the old highly promotable miniseries with huge names (Diane Lane), inevitably "sticky" subject matter (Hillary Clinton!), and Anything Stephen King, who once again proves that there is no catnip like King catnip.

But Michael J. Fox is the reigning symbol of this back-to-the-future strategy. Younger viewers -- those culturally hot millennials you are so sick of hearing about these days -- have no idea who he is. Everyone of a certain age (35 and up) does, and the memory is sweet and lasting. He is one of the most beloved stars in TV history, and his appearance here Saturday recalled a time when NBC was mighty, and great TV stars commanded its fortunes. If only Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld were to agree to reunion shows next season.

Why this counterintuitive move to the past? Because it's not counterintuitive at all. CBS has established that the only people who are now watching traditional TV in a traditional manner are those nearly the age when the word "golden" is ambivalently appended. They are older, they like their TV served up the old-fashioned way, and they like their stars to be: people they recognize (Mark Harmon), fondly remember (Mark Harmon) and their own age (Mark Harmon.)

NBC doesn't have Mark Harmon but it does have a new-old strategy. Will it work? It can't hurt, and as millions upon millions of young viewers consume their media in ways that morph with every new gimmick, every cool app, broadcast TV now seems to have only one recourse: Forget about them, and hope that as they approach those golden years, the couch potato networks will start to look a little better after all.

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