What Will We Do When We Can’t Laugh at NBC?

The annual story of the U.S. TV season is that NBC doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing; this season’s troubles have been immortalized in a Taiwanese animation segment, though I don’t think it’s one of the best (the Playboy bunny getting executed to show the failure of The Playboy Club… okay, but it’s a bit literal).

Normally, this would just be another story of a network that lost its way at least a decade ago and has continued to soldier on. There are a few things that make NBC stories fascinating to people. One thing, again, is that NBC has mythologized itself more than any other network – this is the network, after all, that has a long-running comedy series about itself. When ABC has problems, they’re just ABC; NBC has made itself an institution, like HBO. The whole Tonight Show controversy was built around the mythology of NBC and its most legendary franchise. NBC is like a sports team; the people running it and playing for it are almost completely different now, but the legends and the history and the traditions are still part of the way we think of it.

Two, NBC has actually had a pretty good track record of producing shows that have a loyal and passionate following. They’re the network of The Office, Community, Parks & Recreation, 30 Rock, Parenthood and Chuck. The network has picked up a lot of bad shows too, but the basic strategy in the Jeff Zucker era was to cultivate a cool, hip image and look for hip shows. Fox did hip comedy and drama too in that period, but their attempts in this area usually flopped. NBC, particularly on Thursdays, has been quite sincerely committed to the idea that if they are patient with good shows, people will find them and make them into hits, as with Seinfeld and Cheers and Hill Street Blues. (NBC is a network that mythologizes its past more than any other network, too. CBS has an even richer history, but they don’t talk about it much, and I doubt they think about it much, either; their days as the Quality network are long gone. But NBC executives talk a lot about the past, and as you can see from all the Friends and Cheers references on NBC shows, NBC producers do too.) It didn’t work out very well from a commercial standpoint, but it did intensify the bond that the network’s viewers have with it. You’ll sometimes hear people say the only regular-network shows they watch are NBC shows.

So the future of NBC is also the future of a particular type of television – television that aspires to be more sophisticated and less crude than rival networks. Mainstream yet modern. (Ironically, NBC/Universal’s cable networks, which are the actual profit-makers in the family, are known for taking fewer chances: USA has some of the most old-fashioned programming, and some of the most popular.) People are on edge to see what NBC will do because ABC, CBS and Fox are all going old-fashioned in various ways – ABC loves escapism; CBS doesn’t take risks; Fox is just going to let two-hour variety shows take up much of its programming – which makes NBC the last hope for shows that are not quite cable yet not quite Lowest Common Denominator either. This is a valuable thing, and I think a lot of people like it.

There’s a certain grey area between the freedom of (some) cable and the compromises of broadcast. Some creators, like Joss Whedon, are best suited to working in that area. The collapse of the WB and UPN into the CW, and the lack of real estate on the Cowell-dominated Fox, could make NBC the last place for shows like Community and Parenthood – shows that would be different, and probably not as interesting, if they were on cable, but couldn’t really fit into any of the other networks at the moment.

And finally, you have Comcast throwing a ton of money at NBC in the hopes of turning around and making it profitable, so the network’s flops are big-budget, highly-publicized flops, and many of its projects make a lot of news. NBC is good at getting attention, no matter who owns it; in some ways, they’re better at getting attention for the network than their shows.

The good news about NBC’s continued struggles is that they can’t really cancel their good shows; barring a complete collapse in ratings, shows like Community and Parks and Parenthood have a very good chance of sticking around for a few more years. The question is whether NBC will pick up new shows of that type, or try to go mainstream, or just finally give up and admit it’s a football network. Nobody really knows what the network president, Robert Greenblatt, is going to do. There’s an almost mythic respect for him in the business, which, not being in the business, I don’t have to share. (I’m sure he’s good and smart, but his work at Showtime was often more interesting from a business perspective than a creative perspective. FX produced more first-rate shows with more limitations.) Most of the new shows on the network were not developed on his watch, so it’s hard to say what his tastes are yet. The one warning sign that’s appeared in his regime is that NBC sank a lot of its promotion into shows that nobody wants to watch; the network clearly saw Prime Suspect as its new tentpole, put all kinds of money into it, and when it was clear that no one was interested, they doubled down and started giving it reruns all week. This would be almost the equivalent of ABC deciding we wanted to see Pan Am every night.

But the mention of ABC makes it clearer what NBC’s problem is: the fewer hits you have, the harder it is to make them. ABC’s overall ratings are down this year too, mostly because its long-running hits are not as popular as they were, and it has introduced some expensive shows that didn’t catch on (Pan Am) and bombs (Charlie’s Angels). But ABC still has some hits, and one big hit that got bigger this season (Modern Family). Big hits help create other hits, or they can prop up good shows and give them the time they need to broaden their audience base. (If it’s possible, that is; not every good show will find an audience.) Happy Endings airing after Modern Family allows more people to discover it, and may make it reasonably popular when it eventually moves to its own time slot. CBS was able to build up both How I Met Your Mother from a bubble show into a genuine hit by giving it a more protected time slot for a while. NBC doesn’t have any scripted hits except The Office, and when you don’t have hits, you can’t create reasonably-popular shows either, let alone new hits.

ABC’s Wednesday night, a night that is steadily getting more popular (and manages the rather amazing feat of having critically-praised shows for the entire night), also demonstrates how NBC has sort of been unable to capitalize on its own innovations. The whole approach and style of Modern Family was inspired by the success of NBC’s U.S. version of The Office, but NBC hasn’t been able to launch a follow-up hit. NBC sort of kept comedy cool in much of the late ’00s, but the comeback of the format has benefited every network more than them. Some of this is bad luck, and some of it is bad judgment: NBC executives last season sincerely believed that Outsourced was their ticket to mainstream success. This season they put most of their promotional efforts into Whitney. Their idea of what is a potential breakout hit seems rather random and ill-advised. This has nothing to do with quality, just some design flaws that seemed obvious to outsiders: Outsourced was the wrong show for a time of massive economic anxiety; Whitney depends almost entirely on a leading lady that much of the viewing audience hadn’t heard of before. Basic things.

The most likely path for NBC in comedy is that they will put workplace comedy on the back-burner and go headlong into family comedy. Every network is mostly ordering family comedies for next season thanks to Modern Family; this is almost certainly an over-reaction, but it’s the trend. (Single-camera workplace comedy has – fairly or unfairly – become typecast as “niche,” and multi-camera workplace comedy has pretty much been out for years, mostly because CBS doesn’t seem to like workplace comedy.) NBC’s biggest comedy flop of the season was a workplace show (Free Agents), and the workplace part of Up All Night is the part that’s getting bad reviews. So next season, we may wind up seeing lots of shows with babies and couches in them.

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