Feel My Skills, Donkey Donkey Donkey Donkey

NBC just can’t catch a break, and by “can’t catch a break” I mean that they bring all their problems on themselves. The latest news is that the network’s re-launch of Fear Factor, one of the few things that has even come close to working for them this season, has canceled an entire episode due to complaints about one of the scenes, where contestants were forced to drink the Precious Bodily Fluids of donkeys. Now the episode will be replaced with a rerun, which means that it hasn’t had a new episode since January 9 – and a month off the air is never good for a show’s momentum.

Some reports have implied that Robert Greenblatt, the president of NBC, may have jumped on this controversy as a way of getting rid of Fear Factor. He’s the one who put out the press release saying he had pulled the episode because it was “a segment we should not air,” and Deadline claims that it “clashed with his mantra for rebuilding NBC with upscale shows.”

Greenblatt has been at NBC less than a year, and it’s unfair to judge his tenure this early, but having come from Showtime (where he helped build that network into a major player, though most of the shows he picked up weren’t anything spectacular) he seems almost notstalgic for the atmosphere of pay cable, where you don’t have to pull so many stunts to get ratings. During the TCA he expressed his disappointment over the failure of his pet NBC project, Prime Suspect, arguing that on cable, he’d have declared it a hit and it would have run for years. Which is probably true, but it sounds uncomfortably like the philosophy that has helped drag down NBC: cable is better, and networks should be more like cable.

The other three networks are all, in their different ways and with different types of shows, trying to maximize their share of the shrinking audience; NBC spent years playing for the day when the broadcast audience converges with the online and cable audience. Now it’s in the position of knowing it needs to be “mainstream” but not really knowing how to go about it, which explains shows from the Fear Factor revival to Are You There, Chelsea? (a sort of feeble Chuck Lorre imitation, written by people who used to work with him on Dharma & Greg) to The Playboy Club – shows that seem to be based on a sort of vague idea of “what people like” these days. Its reality division does seem to have a better idea than most of what will catch on – hence The Voice and the decent ratings for the return of Fear Factor – but reality can’t prop up an entire broadcast network, and NBC probably wouldn’t want it to anyway. But that’s the fun of watching NBC make behind-the-scenes moves; it seems torn between the need to get back in the game and the knowledge that getting back in the game would require some pandering.

If you want to see this as history repeating itself, you could get some backup from this 1984 interview with Grant Tinker, when he had been running NBC for three years and still hadn’t been able to turn it around. He claims that the network is just about to turn things around, and for once, he’s right, and . But you can see how the problems NBC had then are similar to the ones they’ve been having lately: they had some great shows that appealed to a young, affluent audience but didn’t get great ratings across the board (Cheers is cited in the article) and to get back some mainstream appeal, they spent the 1983-4 season launching truly terrible shows that had contempt for the audience (I don’t mean The A-Team, which didn’t have contempt for us; I mean Manimal, Mr. Smith, Jennifer Slept Here). Shows that were thrown at the audience with an air of anger, as if to say “if you want crap, we’ll give you crap.” But as I’ve noted before, hits are rarely made with contempt. NBC turned itself around when it was able to come up with a show that satisfied Tinker’s quality-TV mantra and the populist instincts of Brandon Tartikoff. NBC is going to have a much tougher time turning itself around today, because if it was getting harder to launch a hit in 1984, it’s much harder now. But the network’s fortunes will probably turn around with a show that Greenblatt likes and has broader appeal than a cable show. If I knew what that show was going to be, I’d be there pitching it right now.

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