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?