2013-14 Television Broadcast Season: NBC

After about a week of long posts about the 2013-14 up fronts, we finally arrive at NBC, perhaps the closest of the Big 4 networks (and even including The CW) to the edge of the cliff.

This is due largely in part to a number of seriously poor business and public relations decisions over the years, including the various late-night debacles by the network. To make a long-story short, the Peacock decided in 2009 to replace Tonight Host Jay Leno with Conan O’Brien, despite Leno holding the highest ratings in late-night at the time. However, NBC wasn’t about to let Leno leave, instead replacing all weeknight entertainment between 10pm and 11pm with a variety show hosted by the former late night king.

Predictably this was an epic fail. The net hemorrhaged viewers to ABC and CBS’s scripted fare and ultimately decided to pull the plug on the experiment after just six months. To do this, NBC had to pay Conan a huge buyout of his guaranteed contract (I think it was somewhere around $60 million) and let the younger host walk to TBS.

Side note: Less than four years later, NBC is firing Leno again! Supposedly, Leno will be dispatched before the winter olympics this coming February to be replaced by Jimmy Fallon, who hosts the Late Night show behind him. Fallon will be replaced by Seth Meyers of SNL fame. We’ll see how long this goes.

What was less predictable in the original debacle was, once the net returned to regular programming in the 10-11pm slots, they had no programming for the slots, and little in development. Given the number of series that had to be cancel;ed to wedge Leno in, they had little to fall back on, as well. Even though it’s been three years since Leno’s primetime variety show left the airwaves, the net is still struggling to fill its schedule with quality television that also holds a broad enough base to attract a network audience.

Take note of the 2012-13 NBC season, which is a terrific example of this. 7 of the net’s freshmen shows found their way to the chopping block this month, while only a mere 2 will see more episodes (Revolution and Chicago Fire). In addition, The Peacock will only carry one of its sophomore offerings into a third season (Grimm). In all, NBC aired 20 different scripted programs in 2012-13 and only 7 will return. To beat a dead horse: of these, I’d consider four to be close to their end, or perhaps already in their final seasons (Parks and Recreation, Parenthood, Community and Law and Order: SVU). This leaves NBC with just three established scripted series with a potential shelf life of more than two years: Revolution, Chicago Fire and Grimm.

Grim would be the right word for this situation, no doubt.

NBC has also fallen into the game-show trap where they attempt to completely suck ratings from a popular program today, rather than trying to keep it popular over the long-haul. With Sunday nights in the fall devoted to football and Saturday nights being completely ignored, NBC has 15 hours of prime-time programming available. A full 20% of these will be given over to The Voice, with an Idol-style two hour competition on Mondays and the goofy “results show” on Tuesdays.

But NBC has taken the reality further this year, putting The Biggest Loser on Tuesdays before The Voice’s results show, as well as basically digging up the Extreme Home Makeover concept and recycling that Sundays at 8pm (after football).

All of this seems to be something of a lame way to reach a broader audience base. For years, NBC has been the home of the quirky, offbeat, narrow sort of comedy. The king of these was The Office, but that also has included Community, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, My Name is Earl, Go On and many others, most of which aired on Thursday nights between 8 and 10pm. These programs had small but strong followings, and tended to get NBC respect in the critical community as well.

However, NBC never got the most out of its long-established Thursday night of comedy, by consistently tinkering with (and screwing up) the 10pm timeslot. For a decade and a half, Thursday at 10pm was home to ER. The show went off in 2009 right before the Leno debacle, and since Leno shifted back to 11:35pm, The Peacock has seriously struggled to fill that hole. Show after show has graced the storied timeslot, with nary a success. Just this spring, NBC ran Do No Harm (which was cancelled after just two episodes) and Hannibal, which is not likely to return next year (though NBC has made no official announcement).

But the amazing thing was…NBC had the perfect show for the timeslot. Parenthood, a quirky dramady which is also a critical darling, has languished on Tuesday nights without a solid lead in since it debuted in 2010 (also post-Leno). It’s had mostly a reality lead-in in the form of The Biggest Loser and then The Voice. But last year, NBC gave Parenthood two (albeit untested) comedies in the 9pm slot, and lo and behold: the ratings went up a little bit.

For some reason, NBC thinks that Parenthood is a show that is watched only by families, thus the reasoning for keeping it with the reality shows (which, apparently, are also family fare). While that’s probably true, I’d venture that many who watched the likes of The Office and Parks and Recreation also counted themselves Parenthood fans. Therefore, it only seemed natural to me to air the show on Thursday nights with The Office and Parks and Recreation in front. Community should have been backed up to 8:30pm, which Matthew Perry’s Go On in the 8pm lead slot (which was also Friends’ timeslot way back when).

Maybe if NBC had actually done some market research, they would have more than two returning comedies this year.

But, the past is the past. Parenthood is finally where it belongs on Thursdays with a wonderful lead-in in the form of the Michael J. Fox show. MJF will document the exploits of a father who is returning to work after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s (sound familiar?). MJF hasn’t been an on-air regular for years given his illness, but he does come with something of a built-in fan base and I doubt he’d choose to return for a crap show.

But 9pm is where NBC went off the rails. Parks and Recreation, the only half-hour show returning for the fall (Community will be back midseason at the earliest, and I’m guessing Summer 2014…see note below) has been bumped up to 8pm. Never a big getter in the ratings, this move is puzzling to say the least. This puts P&R right up against The Big Bang Theory, which has the highest ratings on broadcast television and also the X-Factor results show which, contrary to logic, people continue to watch. It would have made more sense to use the 9pm timeslot to push P&R’s audience into MJF and then ultimately Parenthood, especially given that CBS has untested comedy and Fox has the fading Glee at that time.

The fact that they didn’t leads me to one conclusion: NBC is giving up on Parks and Rec, and this season will be its last. The fact that the other four shows on the night are completely family oriented, plus the fact that they have the family-based About a Boy (based on the book and 2002 movie) in the pipeline really points towards a 30 Rock style cancellation: 13 episodes and a series finale before the olympic break in February.

In the night’s other programming, Welcome to the Family looks like it’ll be good for some laughs, but the whole Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner concept (in this case, Guess Who Got My Teenage Daughter Pregnant?) is going to wear thin once it hits the back nine this year (let alone in Year 2, 3 or 6). Sean Saves the World, featuring Will & Grace’s Sean Hayes, looks god awful. The trailer is completely punch-line oriented, there’s a laugh track, and it really just comes off like a “Just Jack” spinoff from W&G. I’d expect both of these to find the bottom of the scrapheap after one season.

The rest of NBC’s fall offerings seem a bit more palatable, but there’s little that blows you out of the water. Ironside features Blair Underwood as a brilliant detective who solves crimes from his wheelchair. Despite wondering why this isn’t on CBS (feels like The Eye, doesn’t it?) it seems like a natural police procedural to take up the mantle from Law and Order: SVU which, entering its 15th season, has to be close to its expiration date.

Curiously, the net has scheduled serial drama Revolution to lead up the night (Wednesday) from the 8pm slot. I’m not sure why The Peacock felt the need to use Revolution to lead into Law and Order given that (a) L&O has a well-established audience that is unlikely to change much, if at all and (b) Revolution and L&O are almost polar opposites in format, and unlikely to have much audience cross-over. Better to have put fellow procedural Chicago Fire in Revolution’s slot at 8pm Wednesdays, and moved the apocalyptic drama to Tuesdays at 10pm. First, it has has proven well in pulling from The Voice (and its lead-in here would have been The Voice’s results show) and second, this would have given Revolution a terrific opportunity to gain audience against ABC’s terrible-looking Lucky 7. Even though CBS is airing Person of Interest which has significant audience cross-over with Revolution, people who watch those shows also tend to have DVRs and virtually all DVRs record two shows. Apparently this makes far too much sense.

NBC did do better with flow on Friday nights, though, where it has paired the surprisingly solid Grimm with Dracula. Obviously a fellow fantasy program, Dracula is also a Victorian costume drama featuring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the titular role. Rhys-Meyers comes with a bit of a built-in television audience after 38 episodes in Showtime’s The Tudors. Given that Grimm’s audience should cross over well with Dracula’s and the lack of competition in the slot (ABC has news program 20/20, Fox is in local news), NBC has a legitimate chance to own Friday nights. The missed opportunity here comes at the 8pm slot where The Peacock will show Dateline NBC, a news program which basically exists to be a schedule hole filler for the network. NBC does have the pirate drama Crossbones waiting on the bench for midseason and, if Dracula and Grimm prove to perform well, it’d be shocking if the net didn’t add pirates to vampires and werewolves (and whatever else Grimm has going on) on Fridays.

Given NBC’s developmental bench, the James Spader FBI drama The Blacklist is entering the fall with a target on its back (NBC produced 26!! pilots for the 2013-14 season). The story runs in the same vein as Fox’s short-lived Alcatraz, in which Spader, an internationally wanted terrorist, surrenders himself to the FBI but essentially joins them instead, hunting various master terrorists and criminals that apparently only he knows about. I don’t really get the James Spader deal (I don’t dislike him, but don’t understand the popularity; I guess there’s a lot of Boston Legal fans), nor do I see this concept working. Alcatraz got real boring, real quick. Plus, at some point, it’s going to get vaguely stupid that they are pursing the 50th master terrorist that no one but Spader’s character seems to know about. NBC has scheduled this for 10pm after The Voice, hoping to rekindle the same magic that Revolution found in that timeslot. Don’t see it.

Midseason will see a fair amount of new programming for the net. Including the aforementioned About a Boy and Crossbones, NBC will return to original scripted programming on Sundays (after football) in a night that has been home to The Apprentice (celebrity or otherwise) for a while. Crisis and Believe are two serialized dramas that have very high concepts. Believe, X-Files meets X-Men, has two big names attached on the production side in J.J. Abrams and Alfonso Cuaron, while Crisis will be a political/FBI thriller starring Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame. In truth, NBC should find a way to get these two on the same night as Revolution at some point; all feature some sort of major conspiracy theory and should be airing shorter, 16 episode seasons with no repeats.

Currently unscheduled are two additional comedies (one focused on family, making that five family sitcoms for NBC this year) and the Chicago Fire spinoff, police procedural Chicago PD, as well as Community, which appears no where on NBC’s New Season webpage. It’s very surprising on the face that Community managed to avoid cancellation this year, given NBC’s re-focus on family. However, a 13 episode season will bring the gang from Greendale to a total of 97 episodes, and just one season away from fulfilling its #sixseasonsandamovie prediction. More importantly, the show will hit syndication on Comedy Central this fall, and 100 episodes is generally the benchmark for syndication success. Therefore, I highly expect a six episode renewal for Community AFTER this season (bringing it to 103 eps) in order to wrap up story lines and, perhaps, set up their movie as well. However, given its family focus, expect Community to be relegated to the summer from here on out when the net is starved for programming, so we’ve likely seen the last of the Human Beings until June 2014.

No matter what, though, NBC desperately needs a hit this year. Of its returning shows for this year, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see only Revolution, Chicago Fire, Grimm and The Voice return for 2014-15. That’s a lot of space it needs to fill, and given how many of its programs it cancelled this year, I’m sure the executives at 30 Rock are praying for better times this fall.

Click here to check out the full 2013-14 television broadcast schedule (and scroll down a bit).