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NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NBC will launch a spinoff of its popular workplace comedy "The Office" following the broadcast of the National Football League's Super Bowl championship next February, the network said on Wednesday.
The announcement came as NBC unveiled its upcoming programming lineup, including plans to bring back the acclaimed hospital drama "ER," which launched the career of movie star George Clooney, for a 15th and final season next fall.
Another returning show is the low-rated but critically acclaimed series "Friday Night Lights," a drama centered on football in a small Texas town that will be back next winter.
Among new shows set to debut next season in a prime-time schedule heavy on fantasy and action fare is a remake of the 1980s hit "Knight Rider," a series titled "Merlin" and a modern warrior drama called "Kings," inspired by the themes in David and Goliath.
Other highlights include new dramas "The Philanthropist," about a renegade billionaire who uses his wealth to help people, and "My Worst Enemy," starring Christian Slater as a suburban dad who lives a secret life as a spy.
NBC Entertainment Co-Chairman Ben Silverman, hired last year to help the network recover from a long ratings slump, said we wanted to bring "inspirational, heroic, escapist" drama to the schedule.
"We've watched a lot of dark stuff not work -- and we've learned from that," he said.
NBC, majority-owned by General Electric Co, took the wraps off its programming plans six weeks ahead of the other major broadcast networks, saying it wanted to give advertisers time to plan long-term campaigns and build their marketing around the programs.
In all, the major TV networks will sign about $9 billion worth of advertising deals in the coming weeks, as they unveil their new schedules after a miserable 2007-2008 season. Prime-time ratings are down about 12 percent from a year ago.
NBC, struggling since favorites "Friends" and "Frasier" ended their runs four years ago, is facing particularly intense pressure to rebound. It could again finish the season last in the ratings race behind Fox, ABC and CBS, and its poor performance in recent years has given rise to talk that GE may consider selling NBC Universal.
In one notable programming move for next season, NBC said it would air four half-hour editions of the late-night sketch comedy series "Saturday Night Live" in prime time on Thursdays, with plans to schedule at least some of them the same weeks as U.S. presidential debates.
But the long-rumored spinoff of "The Office," the comedy starring Steve Carell as a cluelessly offensive boss at a Pennsylvania paper company, drew the most attention from journalists and advertisers gathered in New York for NBC's "upfront" presentation of its new shows.
In a bid to give the spinoff the widest possible exposure, the new series will premiere back-to-back with an episode of the parent show following NBC's coverage of the Super Bowl, which ranks as the most watched U.S. telecast every year.
However, executives offered no information about the casting or premise of the new series, other than to say it is from the same creative team as the original NBC show.
Indeed, details about all the new shows announced by NBC were extremely sketchy given that the network lacked any promotional trailers or pilots to showcase them.
"We've got so many terrific plans already in place, there was no reason to wait," said Marc Graboff, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment.
Since NBC announced its schedule before competitors, however, there could be changes in coming weeks and months.
"We always obviously have to react to the three-dimensional chess game we're playing," Silverman said. "Clearly, if something happens that requires us to make an adjustment, we'll make that adjustment."
Walt Disney Co's ABC, News Corp's Fox and CBS Corp's CBS will unveil their lineups in May, the traditional month of the upfronts, when negotiations between networks and advertisers hit full stride.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Mohammad Zargham