By Liana B. Baker and Lisa Richwine
(Reuters) - Broadcast networks Fox and NBC are turning to proven favorites to lure new viewers next season, with Fox rebooting the defunct Kiefer Sutherland action series "24" and NBC bringing back Michael J. Fox in a comedy loosely based on his life.
The two networks pitched their TV schedules to advertisers on Monday at the start of the "upfront" selling season, an annual rite when broadcasters try to persuade advertisers to shell out billions of dollars in advance for their new shows.
Fox is suffering from a 20 percent decline in the audience for once-unbeatable singing contest "American Idol," while NBC has been trying to climb out of the ratings cellar for years.
Prime time ratings at News Corp-owned Fox slumped 16.7 percent this year, according to Nielsen data provided by Horizon Media and based on viewing the day the show airs.
Viewership at Comcast-owned NBC remained flat this season while that of its rivals declined. NBC is so far in third place this year among total viewers based on same-day viewing.
At a presentation at New York's Radio City Music Hall, NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt highlighted "The Michael J. Fox Show," a new semi-autobiographical comedy about a father with Parkinson's disease. Fox starred on NBC in 1980s sitcom "Family Ties."
The network also announced "Will & Grace" star Sean Hayes will return in "Sean Saves the World," a sitcom about a divorced gay dad, and trumpeted its Winter Olympics broadcast in February. It plans 17 new shows throughout next season.
Bringing back former stars is no sure thing. Fox has not starred in a lead role since "Spin City" went off the air 12 years ago. Hayes' "Will & Grace" ended its run in 2006.
Greenblatt said NBC's performance needs to improve.
"We have no illusions about how much work is ahead of us in order to grow our business," Greenblatt told advertisers at the presentation, where the network's own stars poked fun at NBC's shortcomings.
Jay Leno, who will be replaced by comedian Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show" in early 2014, joked in a video duet with Fallon.
"Who knows? We may beat Univision," Leno sang. NBC lost the February sweeps ratings period this year to Spanish-language network Univision.
Fallon told the crowd to send any complaints about the late night schedule to Greenblatt and flashed an authentic email address for the NBC executive on the screen.
Attendees at NBC's event said they were impressed with the glimpses of the Michael J. Fox comedy as well as drama "The Blacklist," which stars James Spader as one of the FBI's most-wanted fugitives.
"'Blacklist' stood out to me. I thought it was high drama," said Greg McLelland, vice president of national sales for Canadian firm Shaw Media.
JACK IS BACK
On Fox, the network is turning to one of its former heavyweights, Sutherland, for a limited run in May of its popular thriller "24," with 12 episodes that represent 24 hours. The original show ran on Fox for eight seasons ending in 2010, when its average audience had declined from a high of more than 13 million to roughly 9 million.
Fox unveiled five new comedies and four dramas. They include "Dads," the first live-action comedy from "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane, and drama "Almost Human," from J.J. Abrams, creator of "Lost."
Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly told reporters the network was making its "biggest investment" to date in programming but declined to comment on the amount.
Reilly said it was likely "American Idol" would feature three judges next year rather than four. Last week, veteran judge Randy Jackson said he would be leaving the show after 12 years.
During the Fox presentation at New York's Beacon Theater, Emmy winner Greg Kinnear took to the stage to promote his new legal drama "Rake." Reilly pitched upcoming miniseries "Wayward Pines" starring Matt Dillon and directed by filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan.
Wall Street analysts expect broadcast networks to have to settle for lower ad rate increases than they have enjoyed in recent years.
Average prime time ratings this season have declined 7.5 percent at the four broadcast networks as they compete with cable hits like "The Walking Dead" and "Duck Dynasty," and streaming services like Netflix Inc.
Netflix, in a bid to shift attention from the broadcast networks, sent a man in a banana suit to give out stickers to ad executives outside of the NBC upfront. The stunt promoted "Arrested Development," a former Fox network sitcom that Netflix is reviving online this month as it moves into original programming.
ABC, owned by Walt Disney Co, will present its new schedule to advertisers on Tuesday, followed by CBS on Wednesday.
(Reporting By Liana B. Baker in New York and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Chris Gallagher)
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