“We’ve had a really bad fall” (and decade): On the fatal flaw of NBC’s development strategy and defeatist thinking

Note: This post is a longer (but barely) and hopefully more coherent version of my tweet explosion from Friday night.

With the annual winter Television Critics Association Press Tour coming to an end and many of the season’s mid-season premieres here or right around the corner, I wanted to take a little time and talk about everyone’s favorite broadcast television network, NBC. It is, of course, very easy to poke fun at NBC in 2012 (just as it was in 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, eh, you get the picture) and when newish head honcho Robert Greenblatt bluntly notes that the network “had a really bad fall” to a room full of people who get paid to make fun of them, it gets even easier. But what I want to do today is discuss why I think NBC is such a mess and more importantly, why I don’t think safe haven is going to come any time soon.

Obviously, there is no question that NBC is the nadir of broadcast television because people like Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman ran the network into the ground with their emphasis on “super-sizing” programs and their hilariously in-the-open strategy to milk as much money from the dwindling broadcast model through cheap programming, “formats,” ancillary products and more.* And as I’ll touch on a bit momentarily, there’s also this overriding sense that NBC is so damaged that no matter what kind of programming it airs, the audiences won’t show up. In short, for all intents and purposes, NBC is screwed.

*Let me be clear that I don’t fault Zucker or Silverman for trying something new and trying to tinker with a system that’s pretty screwed up. The problem is their ideas for “something new” were laughably awful and they happened to stay in a position where they could continue to come up with those ideas for way too long.  

However, what is so curious to me, and something that I haven’t seen bandied about as much when discussing NBC’s clear failure as a network (perhaps we’re too busy making jokes about Ben Silverman or My Dad is Better Than Your Dad, which, to be fair, is fine by me), is the fundamental flaw in NBC’s development strategy. More than any other broadcast network, NBC is ignorantly dedicated to two primary development tactics: Tap into popular trends and reformat big, obvious “concepts.” NBC loves to chase the zeitgeist and they sure as heck love to remake, reboot, spin-off, reformat and adapt content, stories and characters that audiences have seen before.

Look at NBC’s current schedule: Parenthood (film and TV series “remake”), The Office (adaptation), Prime Suspect (adaptation), Grimm (zeitgeist chase), Are You There, Chelsea? (book adaptation), The Firm (continuation of book/film), Law & Order: SVU (franchise), America’s Got Talent (format adaptation), The Voice (format adaptation, arguably a zeitgeist chase), Fear Factor (format adaptation, resurrected from the dead) and Parks and Recreation (originally meant to be an Office spin-off until Greg Daniels and Michael Schur refused) are all either trend-chasing or a big concept. That’s almost the entire schedule! Only Chuck and Harry’s Law are the only dramas that were totally “original.”

And of course, we can go back over the last few years and find a shocking amount of these kinds of projects that NBC put on the airwaves: Bionic Woman (reboot), Knight Rider (spin-off/reboot), American Gladiators (reboot, format), The Apprentice: Martha Stewart (franchise spin-off), The Real Wedding Crashers (zeitgeist chase), The Baby Borrowers (format adaptation), The Chopping Block (format adaptation), Celebrity Circus (format adaptation), Hit Me Baby, One More Time (format adaptation), Who Wants to Marry My Dad? (zeitgeist chase), Law & Order: LA (franchise spin-off), Lipstick Jungle (book adaptation), Friday Night Lights (book and film “remake”), The Playboy Club (brand recognition, zeitgeist chase), Surface (zeitgeist chase), Merlin (foreign import), Heroes (zeitgeist chase), The Listener (foreign import), Teachers (adaptation), Outsourced (film “remake”), Kath & Kim (adaptation), Free Agents (adaptation), Quarterlife (zeitgeist chase, web series re-format).

This doesn’t include all the failed projects that NBC’s tried to get off the ground that fall under one or more of the categories from above, such as The IT Crowd, I’m With Stupid, Wonder Woman, Heroes: Origins, Serial Frank, Top Gear, Jason and The Agronaunts*, The Partridge Family, Have I Got News For You, Dorothy Gale, The Rockford Files, The Dirty Girls Social Club and Emerald City.

*This was supposed to be shot entirely on greenscreen. LOL.

As I hope you can see, NBC’s made some really odd choices over the last five years. Even some of its biggest successes like The Office, The Voice and America’s Got Talent weren’t originally their idea and the two best drama series the network has aired in that time, Parenthood and Friday Night Lights, were also both based on other material.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re having terror flashbacks to the Zucker/Silverman era and muttering to yourself about Greenblatt righting the NBC ship. He’s from cable! He knows how to pick out great projects that should appeal to an audience! In theory, I completely agree with you and I think Greenblatt was a solid hire for NBC. But, let’s take a look at a few of the pilots and scripts NBC has greenlighted during this development season, Greenblatt’s first (and most important): A Munsters reimagining, a “small screen take” on Hannibal Lecter (both of those are from Bryan Fuller), a Wiseguy remake, a “modern day” Frankenstein story, a television adaptation of Romancing The Stone, an adaptation of the book Republic of Pirates, an adaptation of Friday Night Dinner, a slew of westerns and another take on Dracula. Obviously, there are a slew of other, “original” ideas in the pipeline as well, but at this point, Greenblatt’s development strategy doesn’t appear to differ that much from the terribly misguided approach that Zucker and Silverman used to run the network into the ground.

Big concepts and ideas like this sound great in the developmental stage, but what NBC apparently fails to recognize is those kind of programs don’t work on broadcast television in 2012. Contemporary remakes of classic television series are almost always failures, and the same can be said for the kind of hackneyed spin-offs and film extensions NBC likes to traffic in. Adaptations can work and NBC’s had some success there, but their willingness to grab the rights to the latest book or British comedy hit on a whim is problematic as well. And don’t even get me started on Dracula and Hannibal. I mean are you freaking kidding me?

NBC has and apparently continues to work from this flawed logic that one big hit concept series will save a network. Many articles and Tweets have been written comparing current-day NBC and early-aughts ABC and there’s a sense that if NBC can find a Lost and/or a Desperate Housewives like ABC did in 2004, things can all turn around. Unfortunately, that line of thinking is both outdated and severely limited. I’ve said time and time again that Lost is a once in a lifetime kind of series that can never really be replicated, both in quality and circumstances. All the broadcast networks have been trying to make another Lost anyway, and we all know how that has turned out.

Furthermore, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s not 2004 anymore. We’re eight years later here folks and landscape of network television is dramatically different. Not only are ratings much lower now than they were in 2004, leading to an unwillingness to spend an extravagant amount of money on a pilot or series without any knowledge of its possible success or failure,* but the kind of programming that becomes a success on the broadcast networks is much different. Three things work on broadcast television in 2012: easily consumable procedurals, broad comedies and reality competition franchises. CBS dominates the ratings because they are flush with all three (more on them in moment), FOX hangs with the Eyeball because of American Idol and solid performers like House and Bones and ABC’s weathered the post-Lost storm almost entirely because of Modern Family and Dancing With The Stars (which nicely protects just-fine procedurals like Castle). When FOX or ABC tries a big concept program, it usually fails (see: Terra Nova, V, FlashForward, etc.) and they sink right back to what works.

*Ask Sony how they’re feeling about sinking upwards of $10 million on that Pan Am pilot, for example.

If you look at NBC’s schedule, they have two procedurals that work for them just fine in Harry’s Law and Law & Order: SVU, but the latter is super-old and there’s a false assumption that the former’s audience is even older and therefore not worthy. When NBC does a procedural these days, it’s something like Prime Suspect that was both terribly mismarketed and powered by ignorant assumption that American viewers would have brand loyalty to the franchise. Even something like Grimm has an additional layer of “stuff” that probably turns off mainstream (read: somewhat older people in the Midwest) viewers. I’m not saying either one of those series is bad, in fact I like them both fine. But they require a secondary level of investment that the people who typically watch Criminal Minds aren’t going to care about. As a number of people pointed out on Twitter, NBC has tried to do some straightforward procedurals in recent years: Mercy, Trauma, Chase and Outlaw come to mind. Frankly, I’d bet NBC would love to have the first three. They were fine. If they would have been marketed better, it could have worked. Again, the decrepit quality of the network has a whole does have an impact, but there are other factors at play as well. The point is, NBC shouldn’t stop trying series like that.

And of course, we all know how narrow the audience is for NBC’s comedy block. 30 Rock, arguably the most prestigious comedy NBC’s had this decade, debuted last week to its lowest rating of all-time. It’s old. The Office is old. Community and Parks and Recreation are never going to catch on, unfortunately. My buddy Myles McNutt had a nice look at the problems with how NBC markets its comedies that you should definitely check out.

But the point is that NBC has very few solid, stable, straightforward, formulaic programs that the contemporary television viewer wants to see. This is going to sound insane to anyone who likes to believe TV By The Number’s incorrect and bully-like comments about the series, but Harry’s Law is exactly the kind of program NBC needs to have on its schedule. On the comedy front, both Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea? are fairly tepid, but the multi-camera approach is probably the smart approach to take. I’m not saying that I personally like these kinds of programs more than something like Community, but the reality of the situation basically dictates that a certain kind of series works on broadcast and other kinds do not. NBC needs basic tenants of television storytelling on its airwaves and ones that aren’t draped in a certain sense of elitism.

And it’s that elitism that is probably holding NBC back. More than any other network on television, NBC is obsessed with its image and its own history. The Thursday comedy block cannot be tinkered with and the 10 p.m. timeslot is all about the major, quality drama. THIS IS NBC, YOU LOVE THE CHIMES. Unfortunately for NBC, their obsession with history and image screws them with almost all audiences. The older audiences, the ones that could actually buoy the network, might remember the glory days of NBC and scoff at crap like The Firm. You know, because they’re not idiots. And the younger audiences, the ones that NBC so desperately wants and sometimes panders to too much, are both unaware of the network’s history and uninterested in watching television in the traditional manners. In that regard, NBC is out on an island, detached from most viewer groups.

Moreover, NBC’s brand image and connection to its past are in direct tension with the things they actually put on their schedule. Meaning, NBC loves to tout the 10 p.m. timeslot and talk about the connection it has to greats like E.R. or Homicide, but in 2012, they fill that timeslot with The Firm, Prime Suspect, Parenthood and a bunch of reality garbage. Parenthood is the only one that belongs in any sort of conversation with “NBC greats,” and it’s not even a “10 p.m.” series. If you’re NBC, you can’t talk incessantly about the history, the importance and the grandeur of a timeslot and then put The Firm there.* You just can’t. It immediately devalues the timeslot and makes you look even more like idiots for not recognizing the misguided pomposity of your claims.

*This, of course, is why it’s hilarious that NBC decided to just get rid of Southland, the only series they’ve developed in a half-decade that could actually bring value to that 10 p.m. slot.

All networks have trouble working their way through tough times, particularly in a PR and brand image respect because it’s difficult for audiences to care or believe any promo you have. There’s no trust there. But for NBC, those issues are present tenfold due to both their desire to evoke traditional NBC vibes and the now long-running failure to do so.

In that regard, there is this overarching sense that NBC is screwed. When I went on the Twitter rant that spurred on this piece, many people replied to me saying that NBC needs to “go niche” or “embrace the smaller audiences,” and I really couldn’t disagree more. NBC is a broadcast television network. The economics of the broadcast model require NBC to have the largest ratings in the overall and important demographics so that they can keep affiliates happy. The whole directive behind broadcast television is broad content, stuff that appeals to the greatest number. Despite the jokes made at last night’s Golden Globes, NBC is not a “nonprofit organization.” They need to act like one. The model might be flawed and it would sure as hell be nice to be a cable network, flush with all that additional capital, but that’s just not the reality of the situation. And tell Les Moonves that the model is flawed. He seems to be doing okay over that at CBS.

For NBC to “go niche” and try to appeal to a very targeted demographic is not going to work, particularly because chances are that demographic won’t watch television how NBC needs them to anyway. Ultimately, the defeatist attitude is worthless, though. Greenblatt can say they had a bad fall and point out how NBC is the major network most harmed by digital streaming, downloads, etc., but he also has to do something about it. Get a new target audience. Stop talking about your failures. Don’t order a pilot about Dracula. There are things that can be done to at least make an attempt to stop the bleeding. I hope Smash is that first salvo, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot more to keep NBC afloat in the next couple of years.

If Smash is a hit and The Voice keeps chugging along, NBC is in okay shape going into next fall. But then they need to bring in some broader-appealing comedies and standard procedurals that they can start mixing in with the last remnants of what should be the old NBC (The Office, SVU, etc.). I’d honestly love for them to go completely scorched earth and just cancel almost everything, as to sort of reset the audience expectations, but I cannot imagine that happening. Therefore, my hope is that they try something completely different on Thursdays. The comedy block has no more value, as both CBS Mondays and ABC Wednesdays are arguably better at this point, and is losing more and more ground in the ratings. Standing still and being complacent goes back to the defeatist attitude I mentioned earlier. CBS made a big move when it switched Big Bang Theory to Thursdays. FOX changed it up when it moved Idol to Wednesday/Thursday. And ABC took a chance with four new comedies on Wednesday. The last three years, all of NBC’s major competitors have made game-altering moves while they’ve held on to a false sense of history as they continued to lose ground.

Now is the time to start making better decisions. Otherwise, NBC will never recover.*

*Updated addition: As I had forgotten to mention and Chris Castro pointed out on Twitter, NBC also sucks at marketing anything. People not watching and not trusting you plus a porous marketing team doesn’t equal much success. That’s an issue that I can’t really try to solve here, but it’s still important to note. Maybe cop and legal procedurals are easier to market than series about a guy who wakes up and realizes he’s part of the Grimm bloodline? 

12 thoughts on ““We’ve had a really bad fall” (and decade): On the fatal flaw of NBC’s development strategy and defeatist thinking

  1. Great post, and thanks for taking the time to put more words to your Twitter rant. Hopefully my response will also be more coherent than the tweets I sent ya.

    I certainly agree with you that procedurals and broad comedies are an essential part of any successful network and that those should be part of NBC. But I feel you’re underestimating the “decrepit quality of the network as a whole.” I don’t think you can START the revolution by just “being CBS” and get back in the game by slowly grinding it out on the back of a bunch of NCISes and Harry’s Laws.

    What’s the problem with those shows? They can’t get off the ground without a support system. They don’t sell themselves. All those Mercy/Trauma/Chase/Prime Suspect shows you mention premiered at best one step above DOA. The Harry’s Law conversation is for another day but I think we can agree it’s at least not turning the network around. The only two procedurals NBC has launched in the last four years to “solid” results were shows they were able to piggy-back on the legacy of Law & Order (LOLA) and ER (Southland). The others were slow out of the gate and never turned it around. You can claim every single one of them sucked or was some epic fail of promotion while “new” procedurals on CBS like Unforgettable and The Mentalist were great ideas promoted awesomely, but it seems like too much of a coincidence to me.

    All those successful stand-alone dramas on the other networks had MAJOR support. CSI is a bit of an exception in that it started well on Friday, but it was the pairing with Survivor that helped it become a true game-changer. And CSI begat the two CSI spin-offs and the other Bruckheimer shows (Without a Trace, Cold Case), and a factory was born. Fox’s long-running dramas of the aughts (24, Bones, House) ALL had the help of American Idol early on.

    The problem for NBC is that this has gone on so long that they have NO support system left, except for maybe The Voice; and if it’s big and Smash flops, I’d be open to trying a solid procedural after its next cycle. To get back in the game, they’re gonna need the other type of the hit, the one that sells itself. You are correct when you say that ABC in 2004 was an anomaly and that the hit that both “sells itself” and is sustainable is practically once-in-a-generation, but I maintain it’s what they’re gonna need to make any sort of real move. They have to keep taking risks. What I hope Greenblatt eventually can bring to the table is that he stops trying to brew it in a chemistry lab with a formula, so to speak. As you note, the “next Lost” thing has not worked. The remakes are drawing less initial interest with practically every one. It’s gotta be something original and surprising and very good to great. I don’t know what it is, but that’s the point.

    If they follow your advice before they have some kind of support system, it might slow their inevitable demise because there’d be fewer massive flops, but I’m not sure there’s a huge upside. It’s a business of hits, and they have to keep chasing out-of-the-box hits.

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    1. Thanks for the comment.

      A few things: I don’t think I ever said that CBS procedurals were either awesome ideas or fantastically promoted, or that most of NBC’s procedurals were awful. In fact, I said the exact opposite. NBC would probably like to have Mercy on the air right now, honestly. I noted at the end of the post that NBC is horrible at promoting its own content, which is another issue that causes their battle to be an uphill one. You could argue that there are three things really plaguing NBC: Their constant state of suck, their inability to promote and their flawed developmental strategy. The purpose of this post was to focus on the last one because A.) It’s been overlooked a bit B.) It’s more interesting to me C.) It’s arguably the most important. Yes, NBC needs to be in better shape for ANYTHING to work, but the biggest problem is that in like five years, they’ve had a grant total of a half-dozen programs that were even worthwhile at all. All the promotion in the world wasn’t going to save THE FIRM.

      Secondly, my problem with your insistence that “chasing hits” is what they should do is that NBC has CLEARLY proven that their version of “chasing hits” leads us to The Firm, Knight Rider and Hannibal. This gets back to my whole point: There’s a false assumption that out of the box hits are these big, flashy, unique kinds of shows. That’s simply not true in 2012. What are the biggest “hits” of the new season on broadcast? 2 Broke Girls, Unforgettable, New Girl, Once Upon a Time. Only one of those is “non-traditional.” Procedurals and broad sitcoms ARE the hits in 2012, that’s my whole point. I’m not advocating for complacency, I’m advocating for NBC to stop ignoring the realities of contemporary broadcast television and to stop making shockingly stupid decisions that everyone knows won’t work.

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  2. You’re right about everything. The thing is that if they start doing the right thing Community, Parks and Recreations and 30 Rock would all be cancelled. So i really don’t care if the Network is doing well more than i care the shows i watch get renewed. if these shows would have been in CBS, they would be already cancelled.

    I’m not really a fan of CBS. But they are really doing the things great, so NBC should do the same.

    The other network i’m interest is CW. I read that they cancelled a show called the Game and now is doing better than any CW show in another channel. That is really screwed up.

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  3. I actually think that if they are going to keep niche comedies like 30 Rock or Community, they should try them at 10pm. They judged the 10pm comedy block last yr to be a failure, but it did twice as well in the ratings as either Prime Suspect or The Firm have done.

    Thoughts?

    Also, since you’re a big Community and Parks fan, I can’t imagine you’d be happy if NBC completely stopped broadcasting shows like that. Do you really think they should completely drop that? Or would you rather they build an audience with broader programming and keep some niche programs around for prestige, awards, etc.?

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  4. It’s easy to point to the misguided failures that NBC has endured during the last decade or so, but you’ve completely neglected the highly original shows that they’ve tried to launch, only to see no one tune in. From Kings to The Black Donnellys and even Friday Night Lights, NBC has attempted to launch original ideas that would have been turned away by the other broadcast networks. Likewise, Community and Chuck don’t exist today if they had been developed at a different network, and the latter is for all intensive purposes a procedural.

    Moreover, NBC has attempted to launch broad sitcoms with little yield. The last time they had a broad sitcom was that hit was Earl which, in retrospect, they cancelled too soon. But, shows like Perfect Couples and 100 Questions were broad enough that they should have found an audience and didn’t.

    At this point, NBC should embrace their elitist mantra and market to smart, rich, white people who like to buy things. After all, who do you think is watching Harry’s Law? The broadcast model is probably not long for this world. Affiliates have become more of a nuisance to networks than they once were, and even Les Mooves would love to remove them from the equation.

    In a comment above you mention 2 Broke Girls, Unforgettable, New Girl, Once Upon a Time as this season’s break out hits. Since you wrote that we’ve seen big numbers for Alcatraz and Betty White’s Off Their Rockers. The former is a high concept show like those NBC is chasing and the latter an NBC property that sprung from the zeitgeist. Now, of the four you mentioned, 2 Broke Girls and Unforgettable would have flopped on NBC much like Whitney and Prime Suspect have. New Girl is a hit because Zooey is a star and Once Upon a Time is a Lost-like fluke.

    Even still, the vast majority of the comedies that NBC has in development this cycle follow your logic. Multicams from Sarah Silverman, Dane Cook and Rosannne, among others. Are you looking forward to any of those? I know I’m not. Broadcast TV should be synonymous with lowest common denominator TV. Parenthood could have been a hit, if NBC wasn’t afraid to schedule it outside of the 10pm hour and its anything but lowest common denominator.

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    1. Wes, thanks for the comment.

      I think part of our disconnect is what a lot of what you’re talking about is sort of related to taste, and to a certain extent the distinctions between cable and broadcast. Of course, I’m not necessarily excited to see a Dane Cook sitcom or really anything they have in their comedy development. And sure, broadcast TV can be “synonymous with lowest common denominator TV,” but that’s not really what my post was about. I don’t think CBS gives a damn about what TV nerds on the internet think about their programs and that’s certainly part of the reason they’ve had so much success. But NBC wants to literally exist in five years, they’re going to have to think about going that route more often. You can only appeal to rich, super-educated white people so much. Pointing out the failure of Kings or Black Donnellys only further emphasizes my point that NBC is trying to graft a certain kind of strategy onto a system and landscape where doing so automatically equals failure. In this discussion, I don’t care if NBC tries “good” programs or “bad” programs, I just think they should be way more aware of the realities of broadcast television and plan accordingly. And saying the broadcast model is not long for this world just plays into the defeatist thinking I mentioned. NBC is basically waiting around hoping that the model gets revolutionized while CBS, FOX and ABC are laughing at them. I don’t see the model going anywhere in the 10 years, especially when the other networks are doing well (relatively speaking). The infrastructure and system that keeps broadcasting alive will still exist. Local affiliates will still exist. They might continue to lose audiences, but it would take an unbelievable amount of programming tragedies for CBS and FOX (and probably ABC thanks to Modern Family) to be where NBC is right now. I’d love for every program put on the air to be great, but that’s not the case. NBC might lose some rich white folk by filling up its schedule with procedurals, but it also could gain a lot of others back. And even if they don’t do this, they HAVE to stop chasing dumb trends and concepts like they do. FOX and ABC take a few chances with somewhat interesting programming each year, but still know when to go broad or simple. NBC continues to be unbelievably stupid, in almost all regards.

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      1. To add to the comment you were replying to, I actually think Outsourced had some potential as a broad comedy hit. Yes, I hated as much as any other comedy nerd, and I too was pissed that they benched Parks for half the season because of it. But the show actually did pretty well in the ratings in the fall. Its audience only withered once it was sent to 10:30, and even then it did no worse than Community. Had they instead used Outsourced to build out a non-Thursday comedy bloc, it could have worked.

        The way I see it, NBC has had plenty of broad comedies and generic procedurals. But they still need to launch 2-3 genuine hits – shows with a hook that actually draw people to the network. You’re right that remakes of old shows and super high-concept shows probably don’t work. But they still need something different enough to bring viewers in. THEN they can use those viewers to fill out their schedule with the more generic stuff and (on the other side) a few prestige programs.

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  5. How about Awake? No mention there? And Touch?

    I’m not quite sure if procedural-heavy is where NBC needs to go. CBS pretty much has a lock on that strategy. Its viewers are actually CBS-loyal, which is something you don’t see anymore. They’re not just going to flock in droves to NBC just because they churn out a few more procedurals a year. They have CBS for that. Why would they stray?

    They need to carve out a different niche, an NBC-niche, if you will. What that is, I have no idea anymore, but it’s not what they’re currently doing, that’s for sure.

    Some of their new projects you mentioned about I am excited about, because Bryan Freaking Fuller.

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