April 4, 2012

THE SKED’S 2012/13 FIRST CUT: NBC Needs & Possibilities


Today Mitch Metcalf, veteran programming executive Ted Frank and I continue our week-long pre-Upfronts look at the challenges facing each of the broadcast networks and their potential strategies for next season.  We’ve covered FOX and ABC, and today the time has come to consider NBC.
NOTE:  to the extent specific pilots are discussed or suggested in this series, those are based only on the shows’ auspices and loglines, and not on any knowledge about their actual substance or quality.  Most pilots are still in production as this is being written.
NBC Can’t Cancel Everything.
That’s the mantra behind any discussion of the wasteland that NBC has become–in fact, we’ll be repeating it so often that we may as well make it more convenient:  NB3CE.  With all but 1 or 2 nights of the week in a shambles, the network will have to pick its battles and slowly try to rebuild a foundation, one hour at a time.  NBC may or may not ever come back from its current ignominy, but it definitely won’t happen in the space of one season.  
MONDAY:  There are very good reasons to limit a hit reality series to one cycle per season.  These shows eventually run out of steam, and there’s plenty of evidence (Who Wants To Be a Millionaire may be the most celebrated) to show that overuse can lead to even quicker burnout.  We’ll never know if FOX’s addition of the similar X Factor to its Fall schedule this season contributed to the sudden dive in American Idol‘s Spring ratings.  However, all that being said–it’s hard to imagine NBC not adding a Fall cycle of THE VOICE to its schedule.  The show is the only non-football hit in the network’s line-up, and airing it in the Fall will give NBC 2 consecutive winning nights each week, with NFL on Sundays and Voice on Mondays.  The decision isn’t a no-brainer, but it’s certainly no more than a partial brainer.  As for SMASH, it’s already renewed for next season, and with 2 series-low weeks in a row at an unimpressive 2.1, the show needs to hold on to every inch of the lead-in it gets from The Voice.  

TUESDAYTHE BIGGEST LOSER is no longer doing the job on Tuesday nights, let alone taking up 2 hours of real estate, and needs to be shifted elsewhere.  If The Voice is going to continue to have a separate results episode, it might move to 8PM to open up the night.  If not, one potential change would be to try GRIMM here, in an hour where its only drama competition would be the much older-skewing NCIS.  (Although Grimm‘s series-low rating last week may make such a move riskier.)  As for 9PM– 4 years ago, NBC ran a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE pre-election “Update” half-hour for the first few weeks of the season with a fair amount of success, and Tuesdays could be the place for that in the Fall, perhaps coupled with 30 ROCK, which is no longer getting any benefit from airing on Thursday nights and probably won’t do much worse elsewhere.  After the election, the obvious pilot to segue into the hour would be 1600 PENN, a White House-based First Family comedy that stars Bill Pullman, Jenna Elfman, Josh Gad and Brittany Snow recast with Martha MacIsaac.  (Assuming that by the time of the election, American viewers are still able to find politicians entertaining.)  It’s likely that at 10PM, both CBS and ABC will be making changes, so PARENTHOOD, not high-rated, but critically praised and with an upscale audience, could provide some stability to the hour.  Remember:  NB3CE.
WEDNESDAY:  The word “catastrophe” comes to mind when surveying NBC’s Wednesday.  ARE YOU THERE, CHELSEA is surely gone, and even though NB3CE, WHITNEY has provided no justification for its survival.  Launching comedies in this hour against ABC’s is tough, but NBC could choose a couple of half-hours with high-profile (and, frankly, divisive) leads who’ll get some attention:  DOWNWARDLY MOBILE AKA the return of Roseanne (and John Goodman), and NEXT CALLER PLEASE, with Dane Cook.  If NBC feels that it owes Brian Williams a primetime hour, that should air in the nether worlds of Friday or Saturday:  the sub-1-rated ROCK CENTER doesn’t belong on any other night of the week.  One possible drama for the 9PM slot is COUNTY, an ensemble medical show from Parenthood producer Jason Katims, starring Jason Ritter.  And SVU?  It’s an expensive veteran show with drastically dwindling ratings, but thanks to aftermarket deals, there’s still some value to churning out new episodes.  NB3CE.
THURSDAY:  It’s been suggested that NBC blow up its Thursday sitcoms, which draw a mere splinter of the audience that once flocked to them.  (That includes THE OFFICE, whose recent episodes are down 40% from the glory days of last season.)  But even beyond NB3CE, to the extent NBC still has any identity as a network, it lies in those high-quality, upscale Thursday comedies, and the network would destroy that image at its own peril.  So COMMUNITY and PARKS & RECREATION should come back, even with their challenged ratings (although weirdly enough, Community has suddenly seemed to reinvigorate in recent weeks to an almost-acceptable level).  UP ALL NIGHT is a tougher call, because although its numbers really don’t justify renewing it, and it’s not particularly beloved by critics, it’s perceived as being on-brand… and it’s produced by Lorne Michaels, the highest-poundage gorilla left at NBC, who doesn’t have any new pilots of his own that could be picked up as recompense.  In any case, one or more of these shows needs to be “rested” during the season so that other promising comedies can be tried out.  A few that could have the goods:  FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER, from Office creator Greg Daniels and starring Tony Shalhoub and Allison Janney, THE NEW NORMAL, an edgy family (gay couple plus surrogate) comedy from Ryan Murphy, and SUSAN 313, with Sarah Silverman (who’s also a co-creator, hopefully more effectively than Whitney Cummings was this year) and Jeff Goldblum.  10PM has been a graveyard all season, and will require new blood:  perhaps MIDNIGHT SUN, a thriller about a murderous cult that stars Julia Stiles.  
FRIDAY:  This is where The Biggest Loser should settle, unless it’s determined that Grimm can’t survive in more competitive waters.  (And even then, Loser could reduce to 1-hour and lead in to Grimm.)  Dateline does what’s required at 10PM.
SUNDAY:  A little game NBC likes to call “football.”  And after that season ends, CELEBRITY APPRENTICE probably returns, although its recent numbers aren’t thrilling anyone.  HARRY’S LAW, however, which gets beaten by basic cable shows, is done.  NB3CE, but some shows just gotta go.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."