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NBC TV chief says fall season "worse than I hoped for"

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt admitted on Friday that the struggling TV network got off to a "really bad" start last fall, after low ratings and cancellations of several high-profile new shows.

But Greenblatt said he had high hopes for upcoming new shows including musical drama series "Smash" and the return of surprise 2011 summer talent show "The Voice."

"We've had a really bad fall, worse than what I hoped for, but about what I expected," Greenblatt told reporters at the Television Critics Association.

"We have a long road ahead of us, but bear with us," he said.

NBC has been struggling for years to climb from its bottom place among the four major U.S. TV networks. But it was forced to cancel its much-hyped but controversial drama "The Playboy Club" after three episodes in October. New comedy "Free Agents" met the same fate and NBC stopped production of crime drama "Prime Suspect".

Greenblatt joined NBC just a year ago after cable giant Comcast bought a majority stake in parent company NBCUniversal and shook-up the top management.

"Was the 'Playboy Club' too dark? I think it was just a rejected concept," said Greenblatt. "I don't think people were as fascinated by that milieu and that period and I think it was a bit obscure."

Greenblatt called "Prime Suspect" "a disappointment" saying he thought star Maria Bello was "incredible."

But he added; "I learned it's going to take a while, there was no great revelation or epiphany about fall except how hard it is to break through...Audiences seem to be entertained by comedy and escapist, and they love fairytales now. But we keep trying to figure out what's going to work and break through."

"COMMUNITY" COMING BACK

Low-rated comedy series "Community," was pushed off NBC's schedule, leading to speculation that it too had been dropped.

Greenblatt said the show will be back but he did not confirm a timeslot, saying he was "curious to see what something else would do".

In light of fall's failures, Greenblatt said the network was eager to hold onto Ryan Seacrest, who produces the popular "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" reality show on NBCUniversal's E! channel, along with other programs.

He said rumors regarding Seacrest replacing Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" show were "premature" as the network was eager to keep Lauer and find a bigger role for Seacrest, including producing more of his shows on NBC as well as E!.

"We would love to keep Ryan Seacrest in the family primarily because of E!. He has a huge presence on that network and in the time that he began the E! News franchise, he's become an incredible star," said Greenblatt.

Greenblatt also welcomed the hiring of shock jock Howard Stern to the judging panel for "America's Got Talent," calling him a "very thoughtful, very intelligent person".

NBC said singer Harry Connick Jr. would join long-running crime series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" as a guest star.

Mariska Hargitay will be remaining with the show as Detective Olivia Benson and will find a new love interest with Connick's character as a straight-shooting prosecutor. Connick, who is currently starring on Broadway, will first appear on January 18.

(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte)

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