Is NBC the comeback peacock?

It's a long way to the top. Or even third place.

That's the way NBC is feeling, as the once top-rated network has slipped in the ratings over the past two years to fourth, behind CBS, ABC, and Fox. After megahits Seinfeld and Friends went off the air in 1998 and 2004, respectively, the network lacked a substantial hit.

"What was especially glaring for NBC is they were so far ahead in first place only two years earlier...To slip to fourth is a pretty devastating fall," Shari Anne Brill, of media buyer Carat USA, told The Hollywood Reporter.

In the 2005-2006 season, the network's highest-rated program was the Howie Mandel-fronted game show, Deal or No Deal (a fact ridiculed by Emmy host Conan O'Brien in his show-opening song). This fall, NBC is attempting to break out of last place with a slate of shows that is attracting good preseason buzz.

"Last year, people were laughing at the shows," one media executive told the Reporter. "This year there is so much more confidence in NBC's offering. Their [program] development is far superior."

Critics are by and large agreeing: NBC has got some juice this season. At the top of NBC's hype list is the Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, a satrical take on a late-night sketch-comedy show resembling the network's own Saturday Night Live.

In his September 15 review of the show, Reporter critic Barry Garron writes, "Studio 60 may be best new show of the season."

Media Life's Josh Bell concurs.

"[Studio 60 does] what creator Aaron Sorkin does best: catch the intensity of a moment," he wrote on September 13. "Matthew Perry and Amanda Peet deliver especially strong performances."

Bell also has praise for Heroes, about regular people who discover they possess superpowers.

"Heroes largely lives up to [its] hype," he said. "In its best moments it resembles the M. Night Shyamalan film Unbreakable, about a man who discovers a great secret about himself after a tragedy. It's smart, serious and well-acted."

In the September 17 edition of USA Weekend, a critical roundup of new fall shows puts four NBC series--Studio 60, Heroes, Tina Fey's 30 Rock, and Friday Night Lights, a series based on the football film--in the top five. The other was ABC's separate but equally hyped Ugly Betty.

Last season, NBC was lauded for reviving the moribund sitcom genre with My Name Is Earl and The Office. Although the two shows received critical accolades and Emmy wins, ratings were just solid but unspectacular. Analysts say just one or two breakout hits could help reverse the peacock's fortunes.

"NBC needs a hit...Every other network now has a hit," said Jason Maltby of MindShare. "In many ways, it's easier now for a network to get one or maybe two hits, and that could be the difference between top and bottom."

Over the summer, an Internet study showed that NBC's new fall shows were receiving the most chatter on forums and blogs, as well as the most positive chatter.

"If their shows perform well, I could expect a much closer race and maybe even NBC climbing into third [place]," Brill surmised.

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