March 12, 2013



NBC is having an abysmal season, and here’s the thing:  it’s actually worse than it looks.  How is that even possible? you ask.  Right now, Mitch Metcalf’s estimate is that by the end of the season, NBC’s primetime average will be 2.07, putting it ahead of only ABC and its 1.86.  But he also notes that SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL is responsible, over the course of the full season, for about half a ratings point of that number, which means that without it, NBC would be pulled down to around 1.57, the lowest rating for any major broadcast network in history.

(Is the exclusion of SNF just piling on poor sickly NBC?  Not really:  it’s the only show on any of the networks whose success has nothing to do with its entertainment division or creative development team.  Even more importantly, its gross ratings give a distorted picture of its financial value, due to the massive costs that allow for little–if any–profit for the telecasts.  NBC pays an estimated $1.05 billion per year to the NFL as a license fee for 17 regular season games, two playoffs, a Super Bowl every 3 years and a few much lower-rated and off-season exhibition games, which means something in the neighborhood of $40-50M is attributable to each regular-season game–and that’s not counting the tremendous production costs for the complicated live telecasts.  Even at an estimated $545K per 30-second ad, NBC airs these games on a breakeven basis at best, unlike any hit show on any other network.  Strictly in terms of profit, the network would be just as well off airing back-to-back Law & Order:  SVU reruns on Sunday nights.  There are, of course, important and real big-picture reasons that justify the network outlay, including the promotional platform it purportedly provides for other shows, its weekly “event” status, and, in NBC’s case, the ability to remind viewers that the network still exists–but those don’t pay the rent.)

Any way you cut the numbers, though, things are undeniably bad at the Peacock.  Let’s take a night-by-night look at where NBC stands, and the decisions it will have to make in just about two months, when the 2013-14 schedule will be announced and upfront sales begin for commercial inventory in the new season:


8PM:  March 25 is the most critical date on the NBC calendar.  Mondays gave the network its biggest success story of the fall, with THE VOICE near a 4 rating and REVOLUTION near a 3.  But both have been off the air for months–in Revolution‘s case, since late November–and The Voice is coming back with a different set of judges.  Any decline in their numbers, even by 20% (and The Voice declined that much between its Spring and Fall 2012 cycles), would be a serious blow to NBC.  As far as 2013-14 is concerned, Mondays 8-10PM are about as easy as it gets:  Voice will be back in the fall and late spring, and THE BIGGEST LOSER did an adequate job of subbing during Voice‘s long hiatus (it was the highest rated show on the network last week).

10PM:  This is a little tricky.  Does the network leave Revolution in place, thus squandering the chance to use The Voice to launch another new drama, or does it take the risk that Revolution might not be strong enough to thrive elsewhere?  (A cautionary note: Smash, which was doing mediocre but not awful numbers after The Voice last spring, became a disaster when it moved to Tuesday this year.)  The guess here is that NBC plays it safe and keeps Revolution in place at least for the fall–especially if it falters at all when it returns in 2 weeks.  Deception is unlikely to return for the hiatus period, but that’s the least of NBC’s problems.


8PM:  The Voice results, duh.  With hopefully a stronger hiatus show than OFF THEIR ROCKERS.

9PM:   NBC already knows what happens when GO ON doesn’t have The Voice as a lead-in.  The Matthew Perry sitcom went from October ratings of 2.2/2.8/2.5 to a recent set of 1.1s–from a robust success to a show that would be canceled on any other network.  But this is NBC, which has nothing but low-rated sitcoms, meaning that some of them will have to be renewed anyway.  In Go On‘s favor, there are those strong early ratings, suggesting that in the right spot, Matthew Perry can still pull an audience–particularly if The Voice‘s return sparks its ratings once again.  However, Tuesday 9PM may be complicated by NBC’s 600-pound gorilla of the fall–in fact, the biggest gorilla of a commitment any network has made to a new show in years, a 22-episode order for the new Michael J. Fox comedy, made before a pilot was even shot.  Sony Television (which is producing the Fox show), as well as NBC itself, may want that show to get The Voice as its lead-in (although NBC might also want to use it to rebuild Thursdays).  A Fox/Perry hour could make sense with its pairing of one-time NBC icons, but the network might prefer to couple the Fox show with something new.  As for THE NEW NORMAL, it’s been a notch below Go On all season, and is another show that normally wouldn’t even be in a renewal conversation.  But NBC, and its president Bob Greenblatt, very much like being in business with Normal creator Ryan Murphy, and that may be enough to bring the show back, possibly with a short order.

10PM:  Can we all agree that SMASH is dead?  There comes a point where a passion project becomes a folly, and that would be now.  (We’re looking at you, Mr. Greenblatt.)  There was a little show here called PARENTHOOD that had double Smash‘s ratings all through the fall, often winning the hour, and for its trouble, it got a short order and an early exit.  I don’t know, hmmm… maybe bring that one back?


8PM:  NBC has cast the male lead of WHITNEY as the star of one of its fall pilots.  His contractual commitment is still in 2d position to Whitney, but the fact that they’re allowing this at all tells you what side of the bubble the show is on.  And however near death Whitney may be, GUYS WITH KIDS is more so, even with Leno Of The Near Future Jimmy Fallon as one of its producers.

9PM:  SVU is arthritic, expensive and a permanent resident of 4th place in its hour.  But see 10PM…

10PM:  CHICAGO FIRE may only be a mild success, but it’s the only one NBC has that doesn’t have a Voice asterisk attached to it.  The show has consistently beaten Nashville in its slot, and has recently been competitive with CSI.  It’s a certain renewal, and since it’s produced by Dick Wolf, pressure will be strong to bring SVU back along with it.


8PM:  Looking at the landscape of NBC’s Thursday night is like watching one of those 1950s newsreels showing the devastation that followed a nuclear bomb test, with nothing left but wreckage, tumbleweeds and winds blowing poisonous, radioactive dust.  With the exit of The Office, NBC will have to rebuild the night from nothing.  As noted, this would be the obvious place for the Michael J. Fox series if it can launch without a Voice lead-in.  PARKS AND RECREATION will probably return, because it’s the last noble vestige of what used to be the NBC comedy brand.  As to the rest… COMMUNITY has shown occasional signs of ratings life, but it’s hard to imagine the series returning.  UP ALL NIGHT seems to be well and truly dead, despite Dr. Greenblattstein’s futile attempts to zap it with enough electricity (multi-camera!  Lisa Kudrow!) to keep it alive.  Only 20th Century Fox Television and Josh Gad’s relatives have any interest in seeing 1600 PENN continue.   NBC will have to throw new product at the proverbial walls and hope something sticks to an audience.

10PM:  The network is taking one last shot at this hour with HANNIBAL in April, with promos that suggest an uneasy mixture of serial killer thriller and series creator Bryan Fuller’s ripe visual imagination (Pushing Daisies, remember?).  It’ll face very strong competition from Scandal and Elementary, and if it doesn’t work, NBC will be back at the drawing board.


8PM:  FASHION STAR won’t be back in the fall, but the probability is that some other low-cost programming will take its place, either an unscripted series or one of those international co-productions that carry limited financial risk for NBC.

9PM:  GRIMM, while no blockbuster, has found a comfortable niche here and is one of the few shows NBC doesn’t need to worry about.

10PM:  This will probably remain a news hour, either under the DATELINE or ROCK CENTER rubric.

SUNDAY:  The fall is set with football, and in 2014 NBC has the WINTER OLYMPICS, which will carry it through February.  THE APPRENTICE has been none too impressive so far in filling the March-May hole, but that’s also a problem the network may leave for a season where it has fewer gaping wounds.

So:  easy, huh?  The folks making the decisions this year at NBC will earn their enormous salaries.  (Or not.)

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."