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Can the return of 'The Voice' and 'Revolution' resuscitate NBC?

Today, the world will learn the answer to a pressing question.

Is NBC still a broadcast TV network or just a particularly high-profile cable channel?

That's a blunt way of referencing the ratings cliff NBC fell off after its three most-watched shows disappeared in winter. Without Sunday Night Football, singing competition The Voice and new drama Revolution, the peacock network plunged from No. 1 among viewers aged 18 to 49 in November to fifth place in February — behind Spanish-language network Univision.

Some highly-hyped failures in early 2013 didn't help, such as the soapy crime drama Deception, the Jekyll and Hyde ripoff Do No Harm and presidential comedy 1600 Penn.

Its reinvention of last year's anticipated Broadway drama Smash failed so badly that the network will move the show to low-watched Saturday nights on April 6.

NBC entertainment head Bob Greenblatt reportedly is so upset about the situation he exchanged a series of testy emails with late night host Jay Leno after the Tonight Show star told a series of pointed jokes about the network's fifth-place status.

So the return of The Voice and Revolution is a crucial moment for a network nearly down for the count. Football won't come back until fall, but NBC might avoid the shame of a fifth-place finish if viewers haven't lost their love for aspiring singers, goofy pop stars and a serialized story about a world without electricity.

The Voice comes back in risky fashion, replacing two of its most attention-getting judges, pudgy eccentric Cee Lo Green and flamboyant diva Christina Aguilera. In their place, R&B star Usher and Colombian pop diva Shakira will sit in the show's trademark red spinning chairs, next to past "winners" Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine and country star Blake Shelton.

If 2013 proved anything, it's that The Voice's ratings camouflaged a lackluster slate of fall shows at NBC, feeding audiences into comedies The New Normal and Matthew Perry' Go On that the shows never achieved on their own.

As I write this, critics haven't yet seen the new Voice episodes. But we did see tonight's episode of Revolution, which promises more of whatever audiences liked about it in the fall.

Turns out, there's a cadre of scientists at the center of the world's loss of power and there's two slimy bad guys who seem to be collecting them like trophies. Our team of heroes, led by Billy Burke's Han Solo-ish fighter Miles Matheson, has just liberated one of these scientists who also happens to be his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Mitchell's Rachel Matheson.

In the face of a post-apocalyptic drama as riveting and explicit as AMC's The Walking Dead, Revolution feels like a cartoon, with characters making choices of little sense in a dying world. Still, this episode offers the death of a character crucial enough that our heroes soon will get another motive: revenge.

It's not enough to turn me into a fan, though I'm betting it's enough to hold a good portion of the Voice's audience. But NBC better never air Revolution alone, as they'd likely discover what a real lack of power feels like.

I'm not encouraged by a look at the first four episodes of NBC's next new series, Hannibal. The concept is stellar, looking at the partnership of effete-yet-brilliant psychologist Hannibal Lecter and FBI profiler Will Graham before the world learns that Lecter is a twisted serial killer who consumes his victims in elaborate, gourmet meals. (For knowledgeable fans, it would essentially be a prequel to the films Manhunter and its remake Red Dragon.)

Unless you count Laurence Fishburne as FBI boss Jack Crawford, there is no movie star to hold the audience's attention as Kevin Bacon has in Fox's serial killer drama The Following. There is, however, lots of gore, including a killer who impales victims on deer antlers and another who peels off parts of victims' backs to serve as fleshy "wings" transforming them into angels.

Perhaps the gore, increasingly intrusive scary music and Casino Royale alum Mads Mikkelsen's bloodless performance as Lecter is enough to draw audiences hungry for a new Silence of the Lambs-style story.

But NBC needs more than moody music and explicit crime scenes to become a broadcast network again.

The question at hand is whether The Voice and Revolution will buy them more time, or serve as the sad capstone to a time most executives there would rather forget.

The Voice returns at 8 tonight, Revolution airs at 10 tonight and Hannibal debuts at 10 p.m. April 4. All air on WFLA-Ch. 8.

Can the return of 'The Voice' and 'Revolution' resuscitate NBC? 03/24/13 [Last modified: Sunday, March 24, 2013 8:34pm]
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