2014-15 Television Upfronts: NBC

It’s time for the 2014-15 network upfronts, starting with NBC, and I’ll tell you the same thing I’ve been telling you the same thing I’ve been telling you for years: Broadcast television is in big trouble.

Quick questions: What’s the best show on television? What’s the best show you’ve seen in recent years? What’s the one show you can’t wait to watch each week?

I doubt many, if any, of what came to mind air on any of the five over-the air networks (NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS and The CW). This is because the television network model is broken.

I doubt this is news to any of you reading this. All you need to do is take a look at what’s been happening at NBC over the last few years. Some of the best programs on television have run through there in recent years…not that any of you have noticed. Friday Night Lights was one of them. Though it lasted five seasons, it was only thanks for DirecTV’s sharing the production costs that the Texas football drama lasted beyond the second year.

Jason Katims, the Executive Producer of FNL, has also headed up the best program currently on broadcast television: Parenthood. Critically acclaimed and well-loved by its small following, the gang at Parenthood spends each and every spring wondering if their show will be back next season. This year was no exception, though I am happy to share that the show will be back for a shortened sixth and final season this fall.

Parenthood has had seasons of 13, 22, 15, 18 and 22 episodes for each of its five years. The fifth was, by a fair margin, the worst critically. The fact of the matter is that it’s very difficult to come up with 22 high-quality hours of any story each year.

Yet network programming demands it: The production costs of network television, per episode, often range in the millions of dollars per episode. More episodes reduces the per episode cost; there’s a lot into getting things up and running, then in closing things out, but once you’re moving, it’s relatively efficient to produce more episodes (same reason why franchise films like The Matrix and Lord of the Rings produce sequels in tandem).

So the production costs get high, which means the network rights fees get high. Then, in turn, the networks need to sell higher-priced ads. In order to sustain that, the ratings must be astronomically high; often in excess of 10 million people per episode. Otherwise the show loses money and get cancelled, much like Revolution on NBC last week.

Revolution debuted in 2012 to pretty high ratings; somewhere around 14 million a week. It came down, as all the shows do, but settled in around 9 million a week, which isn’t bad for a show with no real name actors in it. Moved away from The Voice in 2013-14, Revolution’s ratings dropped some more. However, the 22 episode requirement led to a dragging middle of the season. The show started hemorrhaging viewers, and its production costs were cost prohibitive to bring it back.

What about Game of Thrones you say? Good point. Game of Thrones is one of the most (if not THE most) expensive show in television history. It only airs 10 episodes a season, and draws something like 6.5 million a week on HBO. So how does that work?

First, Game of Thrones is NOT an American television show. It’s international, airs in countries all over the world. It’s produced much like a film; where investors put up the money and sell the rights. That divides the production costs amongst a wide variety of networks and platforms. Its 10 episode order allows for more concentrated drama and its freedom from network marketing controls lead to better art.

This is in pretty stark contrast to NBC the last couple of seasons. By all accounts, people seemed to like The Blacklist, the James Spader-led crime drama. I never watched an episode; it seemed to me to be a lot like the terroist-of-the-week shows over at CBS, which don’t really appeal to me.

Without looking much at the ratings, NBC also seems to like the sophomore Chicago Fire, a soapy drama revolving a bunch of good-looking people at a Chicago fire department. So much so that they created Chicago P.D., which by all accounts is a show about a bunch of good-looking people who work at a Chicago police department. This is Dick Wolf-produced television, the same guy that did Law and Order. Episodic, high-drama television that draws ratings, but all feels pretty much the same.

If that all sounds pretty weak, it’s because it is. Other than those, NBC doesn’t have another scripted program from the last couple of seasons returning. Believe, an interesting show created by Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón, aired a great pilot episode, but then languished after, succumbing to the network television formula of the “one miracle a week” (in contract to The Blacklist’s “one terrorist a week”).

In fact, NBC’s fall schedule has one comedy which will have aired a grand total of 13 episodes prior to the fall: About a Boy (another great show from Jason Katims, so please start watching his programs, huh?). Last season’s slate of comedies failed miserably. The Michael J. Fox Show, Welcome to the Family and Sean Saves the World all featured great sitcom talent, but they forgot one thing: sitcoms are supposed to be FUNNY.

Therefore, The Peacock will replace those three terrible sitcoms with what looks like three more terrible sitcoms. Bad Judge leads the pack – do I need to go beyond the title? A great judge also likes to party. Woof.

In point of fact, there isn’t a single interesting new program on NBC this fall. Constatine, a re-imaging of the film and comic book, looks like it could be fun, but 22 hours of that sounds like a heck of a lot.

State of Affairs, a political drama with a terrorism bent, looks like it had potential to be a global version of The West Wing. Then they went and signed Katherine Heigel for the lead. I don’t have anything against Heigel, but if you watch the trailer, it’s clear from the get-go that she doesn’t have the range the part requires. She’s stiff, and just can’t buy the toughness. You can almost hear the network brass shoving her down the throat of the Executive Producers.

Notice how I haven’t talked much about reality television. That’s because it’s just not my cup of tea; I know many of you out there love it and if I ran a network, I’d have some too. But, quite frankly, I don’t know how NBC can devote a full 20% of its weekday primetime hours to The Voice. How are fans of this show not sick of it yet? I have no answer for this.

What else is clear is that networks don’t know what to do to stem the tide of 500+ cable channels, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others. It’s clear that NBC hasn’t got it yet for 2014-15, so I’ll come back to where I started:

Broadcast television is in trouble.

No blog last week means more than a full slate this week; I’ll be doing upfront posts for each of the major networks each day (except The CW, as I’ve never watched one of their shows and it wouldn’t be fair to judge them). We’ll talk more about how network television is in trouble, and maybe a little bit of what can/should/will be done to fix it.

NBC 2014-15 Television Upfronts Roundup

Growing Up Fisher
The Michael J. Fox Show
Sean Saves the World
Welcome to the Family

About a Boy
The Biggest Loser
The Blacklist
Celebrity Apprentice
Chicago Fire
Chicago PD
Hollywood Game Night
Law and Order SVU
Parenthood (Final Season)
Parks and Recreation (Spring 2015, Final Season)
The Voice

New This Fall
Bad Judge
A to Z
Marry Me
The Mysteries of Laura