Hey all. It’s been too long. I’ve been really busy this fall and writing elsewhere (hopefully you’re following me over at This Was Television and TV.com). But frequent contributor Wesley Ambrecht decided to exchange some emails about the state of the broadcast networks with sweeps upon us. We tackled Fox last week, and up now is NBC.
Wesley: Okay. Let’s talk about TV’s #1 Network… NBC. Writing that is going to take some getting used to but, after a prolonged slump, NBC is back atop the leader board in the demo this fall. Although down from last spring and way off pace from what it did in spring of 2011, The Voice has carried NBC to wins on both Monday and Tuesday most every week this fall. It has also helped the peacock network launch three new shows successfully, and more or less write off Thursday altogether.
As we did with FOX, I think the best way to kick this off is by talking about NBC’s new offerings. With more holes to fill, coming into this fall, than any of the other networks, NBC was forced to roll out 6 new series. On the drama side, they unveiled Revolution, which to date is TV’s highest rated new drama series. Their comedy slate, meanwhile, included Go On, The New Normal, Animal Practice, and Guys with Kids. And then, there was Mockingbird Lane, which was neither a comedy nor a drama nor a series that will continue to air. So, not everything has changed at NBC.
All jokes aside though, I’ve been more impressed than not by NBC’s new shows. I’m admittedly behind on Revolution, but the four episodes I’ve seen kept me interested enough to continue DVRing it. Is it significantly better than The Event? Yes, yes it is, because The Event was an awful mess of a show. But, it has also been better than Falling Skies, FlashForward and a litany of other Lost wannabes. Sure, the logic behind Revolution is silly and the fact that steam engines seemingly stopped running when the power went out makes no sense, but the characters are interesting enough that I plan to try and catch up in the near future.
On the flip side, I will not be catching up on Guys With Kids anytime soon. The pilot was innocuous, but it was also enough for me. I like all 3 principles, particularly Zach Cregger, but the concept is paper thin and the laughs are stale. Still, I guess it deserves credit for self-starting. And, who knows, maybe with a Whitney lead-in it’ll develop into a bona fide ratings smash.
I don’t have too much to say about Animal Practice. It was uneven. Joanna Garcia looked pretty. No one watched. Its cancellation came as no great surprise. Yep, that about sums it up.
That leaves us with Go On and The New Normal. I’ve watched every episode of both and find each charming to different degrees, but The New Normal is definitely better.Go On had a stronger pilot. In fact, it was my 2nd favorite pilot of the fall, behind only Ben & Kate. But, it has since squandered some of that goodwill. Episodes like “Big League Chew” and “There’s No ‘Ryan’ In Team” were superficial and dealt with grief in unbecoming ways. The New Normal has also had some clear missteps (the less said about “Obama Mama the better), but it’s highs have been MUCH higher. The A-story of “Baby Clothes” was the first time I saw some hints of Norman Lear in Ryan Murphy’s writing, and it made me want to stand up and clap. My only real issue with The New Normal is their deployment of Ellen Barkin. If they course-correct her stuff, I can see it joining my upper-echelon of comedy. Cory, I know you’re NBC’s biggest fan, so I’m excited to hear your take. What do you make of their turnaround and their new programs?
Cory: I just love living in a world where NBC is the top network. It feels so right. Especially when they’ve clawed their way back to the top with tons of great programs!
Wait. That’s not right.
More seriously, I cannot believe you forgot to mention Chicago Fire. That show sort of defines the entire slate of NBC newbies for me: Broad, bland and fine. I watched multiple episodes of every new NBC series and didn’t hate any of them, but other than Go On, which we’re obviously going to fight about, I didn’t particularly like any of them either. But this has always been Greenblatt’s strategy since he took over. He no longer wants NBC to be the place for niche comedies and short-lived but interesting dramas. Not everyone–including me–believed he and the network could pull it off but I guess I underestimated the degree of love people have for Adam Levine and Blake Shelton’s bromance.
While I’m also behind on Revolution (though just an episode or two), it is much more competent than I expected. Most of that competency is directly attached to Billy Burke and Giancarlo Esposito’s performances, especially considering Tracy Spiridakos is struggling with a character that isn’t well-written to begin with, but their work is enough to carry me through most episodes. I also appreciate that for all the silliness inherently in the premise, it’s still quite simple: the power went out. Though it isn’t even close to on the same level, the show feels like the first post-Lost offering to get the early Lost formula down. All of those other terrible shows came up with a “cool” or “high concept” idea first instead of recognizing that what made Lost work so well is that in the beginning, it was just “people crash-land on a weird island.” Revolution knows what it is and is being steered by someone who knows how to do cross-country trip shows. I’m not that surprised it’s a hit (especially in that time slot) but I can’t wait until it tanks in the spring because NBC held it off for too long.
The comedy slate is, as you suggested, a mixed bag. I remember laughing a few times at Animal Practice and Guys with Kids in the few times I watched and you’re right about Creger, he’s far and away the best part of that show. I await his guest starring turn on New Girl next season after Guys with Kids get canceled. Your thoughts on Go On and The New Normal are surprising, but only a little. Someone might try to kill you for comparing Ryan Murphy to Norman Lear. I enjoyed two of the first four episodes of Normal, particularly the aforementioned “Baby Clothes,” but good lord was that “Obama Mama” episode a horrible piece of television. I love Ali Adler but that was just so tone-deaf that I couldn’t even finish it. I haven’t caught up with the show since, but it seems like you’re saying I should. You know that I can be easily seduced by Murphy’s brand of storytelling, so maybe I’ll check it out.
Go On isn’t great (it’s nowhere near Ben and Kate‘s level of early season greatness, and I’ve probably even laughed more at The Mindy Project despite its unevenness) but there’s a number of great people doing solid work in it. Matthew Perry seems much more comfortable in the single camera style now than he did when he was on Mr. Sunshine and while some of the show’s treatment of grief can be simplistic and formulaic (Ryan thinks he knows how to fix a peer, oh wait he was terrible wrong and now they’re probably going to have a massive set-back!), it also manages to exude some real pathos from time to time.
Are you surprised at the network’s success this season? And are you watching The Voice?
Wesley: Here’s what’s funny about me forgetting to mention Chicago Fire, it was my absolute least favorite fall pilot (save for Malibu Country, which I still need to watch). Putting aside Jesse Spencer’s shoddy accent work, the story itself was heavy handed and the montage at the end was enough to make Kurt Sutter groan.
I find it interesting that you single out Giancarlo Esposito’s work in Revolution, because I feel like his performance is a bitty hammy. Part of what I liked about episode 3 was the nuance that Mark Pellegrino brought to his stock bad guy role. I’m not sure how often he is set to appear but I was far more taken by him than Esposito.
I agree with most of what you said about Go On. The cast, both regular and recurring, is just plain terrific and there have been episodes where the pathos is earned, “He Got Game, She Got Cats” for example. Still, at this point I think the unearned pathos outweighs the earned pathos.
Unlike X Factor, I’m not up to date on The Voice, but I am slowly catching up. Unlike the last two seasons, this year definitely has been tedious though, if only because there are so many more people. I’m in the midst of the Battle Rounds right now, and adding the steal component has certainly livened things up. I also like that the finale no longer has to feature one contestant per judge. It ups the stakes significantly. You bring up Adam and Blake, and I think that’s a good point because they’ll be expected to carry the show this spring when Christina and Cee-Lo depart. Speaking of which, what do you think of Shakira and Usher as the new coaches?
Cory: Esposito’s performance is definitely hammy, though I think it’s improved as the show’s given the character more shading. Pellegrino was tremendous in his episode and it that character’s interactions with Billy Burke’s Miles helped make that the strongest Revolution episode that I have seen. The show works so much better when it’s about the adult characters, does it not? The kids are, as kids tend to be on shows like this, awful.
Shakira and Usher seem like fine enough replacements, I guess. I like both of them. In what I’ve seen of The Voice (most of the early parts of S1 and S2), Blake and Adam provided the most substantial feedback and interest anyway, so it’s good that they are the two sticking around. Cee-Lo is engaging at times, but often seems like he’s still playing a role up there and the less said about Christina’s cattiness, the better.
But with Revolution and The Voice in mind, let us transition to some broader network concerns. For one, how surprised are you about NBC’s overall success, and do you have ideas as to why it’s doing just so well? Like you mentioned, The Voice is down a little, so it is purely a byproduct of all the other networks’ struggles? Seems like NBC got a little lucky (not to take any credit away from them, Revolution was well-marketed, but you always have to get lucky in this business) with CBS moving Two and a Half Men, Dancing slowing down and Fox not having a good idea as to how to replace House (bet they wish they could have dumped an even bigger truck-load of money on Hugh Laurie’s yard and cut everyone else’s salaries again). And really, you could make the same case about Tuesdays, now that Glee‘s moved away. NBC has certainly taken advantage of the circumstances, and you can only compete against what the other networks air, but it is a bit staggering to me how quickly this has turned around.
Yet, I’m not convinced it sticks. Holding The Voice until later in the spring is smart considering it’s dumb enough that there are going to be two cycles (it completely removes the spectacle of it all away), but keeping Revolution off until then as well is troublesome. How many times have we seen a network try this with serialized show like this? Hell, NBC did it with The Event. They know. While Revolution is both a better and more popular show than all the other similar offerings that faced these circumstances, NBC is clearly terrified of how the show might do without that Voice halo. Do you predict that both come back lower in the spring? You have to imagine that Fox takes hold of the night if The Following takes off and NBC’s temporary Monday content isn’t that great, and I don’t know what the hell happens on Tuesdays while The Voice is gone, but I know that NBC no longer wins those nights. I appreciate NBC’s willingness to not completely run The Voice into the ground, but aren’t they going to lose all their momentum?
Elsewhere, the comedy landscape is still in flux. Someone thankfully realized that it wasn’t a good idea to run Dwight Schrute even further into the ground or let Paul Lieberstein run another show, so no order for The Farm. Whitney and Community were never actually deployed to their Friday deaths, with the former taking Animal Practice‘s slot on Wednesdays (and creating a nice little multi-cam block) and the latter sliding right back into its 8 pm Thursday home. But despite Community‘s return home, it’s clear that the recent era of NBC comedy is just about dead. Up All Night is, for some ridiculous reason, changing to multi-camera in last desperate attempt to stay alive. The Office and 30 Rock are both done (though going out very well) and that sort of leaves Parks and Recreation as an orphan, meaning it will probably be canned as well. NBC has just given up on Thursdays in the fall, but they probably should long-term too, right? Go On is where they need to build from now, and I think where they want to build from. I don’t know if they’ll keep Go On on Tuesdays after The Voice forever (they seem more confident in it than Revolution), but I hope they don’t move it to Thursdays. Your thoughts?
Wesley: You make a number of good points. Let me see if I can attack them one by one, starting with Revolution‘s extended hiatus. In theory, I actually like the idea of holding Revolution back until March. TV schedulers have gotten less and less interested in building nights since the advent of DVR, assuming that we’ll be time-shifting anyway. But, I still think there is something to be said for audience flow. Now, I see the argument that The Event and FlashForward both suffered from time spent off the air, but there are a number of cable shows that seem to do just fine with longer breaks. USA throws odd gaps in the middle of just about all of their shows, The Walking Dead is going away for several months again this year, and ABC Family has seemed to make cockamamie breaks work for Pretty Little Liars. In practice, the reason I worry about NBC holding Revolution, and you touched on this, is that they finally have a foothold on Monday nights. Relinquishing that hold now, if only for a few months, could prove detrimental in the long run. The Biggest Loser is no longer what it once was ratings wise, and something tells me Deception isn’t long for this world.
More so than Revolution though, it’s losing The Voice for several months could really hurt NBC. Even though it’s down, Carson and company have kept NBC in the game. I’ve seen a number of articles praising NBC for waiting until March to start up the spring cycle but that means said cycle will run until the end of June, putting a smaller gap between seasons 4 and 5. Unlike you, I also worry that a change to the judging panel could yield massive ratings declines. Blake and Adam are a wildly entertaining pair and I think Usher will do serviceably in Cee-Lo’s stead, but the loss of Christina will definitely be felt. Yes, she acts like a petulant child quite frequently, and looks like a white-chocolate Snooki, but her antics cause friction. Unlike X Factor or American Idol, The Voice is almost wholly dependent on the chemistry of their coaches. If NBC knew Christina was stepping aside, they should have gone for someone like Katy Perry, who has a distinct brand and girly personality to add to the mix. Shakira will draw no one new to the show and I can’t see her contributing much either. A rotating panel also means that S5 (Fall 2013) will likely see Cee-Lo and Christina alongside two new coaches. That could be a death knell for the show, especially if someone like you (who watches so sparingly) can identify that Adam and Blake are the draw.
Moving to Tuesdays: I hope Betty White’s Off Their Rockers comes back to series highs and wins the 8pm hour consistently. Cause, ya know, that would be funnier than the show itself. Go On and The Normal should hold up and Smash will up be up year-to-year because of morbid curiosity and a marketing campaign that pitches Academy Award Winner Jennifer Hudson as the show’s newest star. So, at least here, NBC should be able to rest easily. I just worry that keeping Parenthood off the schedule entirely will spell the end for that show, which is devastating since it is the BEST DRAMA ON TV.
Jennifer Salke is definitely trying to suss out what the NBC comedy brand is moving forward. When she talked to TV Guide earlier this week, she admitted as much. Whitney came back to Whitney numbers this week, and Guys with Kids got 5 more episodes, but neither is likely to survive the season. And, as you noted, The Office and30 Rock are both done after this year too. But, I don’t think that spells cancellation for Community and Parks and Recreation. If anything, I think it makes their returns more likely. Salke knows that Rome wasn’t built over night. Those two shows offer her a security blanket of sorts. She knows exactly what they’ll pull and she doesn’t have to spend any money promoting them. Thus, it wouldn’t shock me at all to see them slotted back to back on Fridays at 8pm next fall. If 1600 Penn shows any life on Thursdays, I can see NBC sliding Go On and The New Normal over there and rounding the night off with Michael J. Fox’s new series.
But, I’m probably getting ahead of myself. NBC still have this winter/spring to worry about. Like you, I can’t say I understand the Up All Night experiment, but that’s happening. Not happening is The Farm, which I actually think is a mistake. It may have tarnished The Office’s memory, but The Farm would have been a broad comedy with a determinable hook. Between 5 episodes of multi-cam Up All Night and 5 episodes of The Farm, I’m spending my money on the latter. NBC also has Save Me and Next Caller Please on the bench. Although, Next Caller Please, is allegedly so awful that it will never air. Plus, there are number of dramatic offerings yet to be scheduled too, including Do No Harm, Crossbones, Dracula and Brian Fuller’s Hannibal. When do you see NBC finding the time to air all of these shows, Cory? Could Greenblatt be plotting an aggressive summer campaign?
Cory: Yeah, NBC still has a lot of shows left in the queue, though some of them seem so terrible that it’s easy to imagine they won’t ever make it to air. You mentioned the Dane Cook vehicle Next Caller Please that was already “cancelled” a little bit ago, but I’d also bet that Crossbones and Dracula don’t air during the season-proper either. The point about The Voice running into June suggests that Greenblatt is indeed interested in making some noise in the summer. However, based on the slate of leftovers he has on his plate right now, spending the promotional money on any of them but Hannibal is probably a waste of time. It’s not like Crossbones and Dracula are going to catch on, and although Do No Harm has a buzzed-about lead in Steven Pasquale, I’m not sure where that kind of show fits in on NBC right now. It does seem like NBC is investing a good amount of money into Fuller’s Hannibal, though I guess you could say they did the same thing with The Firm and I could easily see Hannibal ending up against like The Firm (i.e. burned off on Sunday night). In the hypothetical world that Greenblatt wants to make summer happen, I could see a Do No Harm/Hannibal night working, with them using The Voice to push both on separate nights before pulling them together on a Tuesday (away from Big Brother).
The problem with being in terrible shape like NBC has been is that you convince yourself that you need to buy as many properties and scripts as possible, both A.) because you know that you might have space to fill (because you suck) and B.) because you’re grasping for anything to make anything work. I wrote last spring about how NBC’s biggest problem is the investment in stupid “concepts” or properties like Hannibal or Mockingbird Lane, so I’m hoping that with the success of “original” content like Revolution and Go On (and hell, Grimm to some extent), NBC is out of this creative slump. The thing is, they have to purge themselves of all these silly things they bought during the sad time (it’s basically like NBC is that guy who got drunk, came home, bought a bunch of “cool” things on Amazon and then found them all on his doorstep eight days later). And NBC’s been known to just let stuff sit on the shelf forever anyway (hey there, Love Bites and Friends With Benefits). Do you think NBC should try summer? Networks, especially NBC, have been trumpeting this for years and they never pull the trigger. ABC’s done well with Rookie Blue and NBC tried and failed with Saving Hope last summer. Is it worth it?
Wesley: Before I go into whether or not NBC should program during the summer, I want to note that given the choice between Do No Harm and Dracula, I’d back Dracula. John Rhys Meyers has proven he can carry a series and Dracula comes from established IP. Do No Harm, meanwhile, seems like My Own Worst Enemy: Part II.
With that out of the way, yeah, I do think NBC should test their luck with summer programming. In a letter to his fans published yesterday, Next Called Please creator/EP Stephen Falk reasoned that the would-be Dane Cook vehicle was axed due to a lack of real estate. Considering the dearth of programming NBC typically has in the summer, I find that bewildering. You jokingly mentioned Friends with Benefits, but that actually held its own on Friday nights without any real promotional backing. Imagine if NBC had really played up Dane Cook coming to TV…
Assuming none of the TBA shows make their way onto the air until summer, I could see a schedule like the one below starting in late May.
Monday: 8pm-10pm: The Voice
Tuesday: 8pm-9pm: The Voice
9pm-9:30pm: Save Me
9:30pm-10pm: Betty White’s Off Their Rockers
10pm-11pm Do No Harm
Wednesday: 8pm-9pm: Grimm (Repeats)
Thursdays: 8pm-10pm Comedy Reruns (including Go On, The New Normal, 1600 Penn, and Community)
10pm-11pm: Rock Center
That would be about as competitive a lineup as any cable network puts for in the summer, no?
Cory: That looks really good to me. There’s consistency from the “regular” season there and it’s nicely balanced to be really competitive through the week. I guess the question is whether or not NBC wants to pay the money to promote it, right?
Wesley: Ultimately, yes. They have the content; but, do they want to pony up the cash to help that content succeed? I imagine they throw one or two of those shows on the spring and watch them fail, most likely Do No Harm, in which case this schedule is more or less blown up. Then again, they do have an entirely new scheduling team, so perhaps I’m wrong.