27th Mar2013

Must Flee TV – The Future of Comedy on NBC

by Will

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Sometimes I have conversations with myself, and then decide it would probably make more sense to write it all out. Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about TV. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as it’s what I do. Specifically, however, I’ve been thinking about the future of NBC. What was once the network TV powerhouse due to ONE night a week, NBC’s now being beaten by Spanish language programming. Must See TV has long been dead, and the network hasn’t made much progress in resurrecting it. As this season marks the end of both 30 Rock and The Office, there are a lot of questions as to what the future holds for Thursday nights. Thinking it over, I think it makes sense for NBC to go “scorched Earth” on its entire comedy slate. Nothing’s working, and nothing’s really strong enough to string along much longer. As the May upfronts approach, it’s the time of year where we make bets on what stays and what goes. Let’s take a look at things, shall we?

Tuesday

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Tuesday nights, bolstered by the lead-in of The Voice, are the home of Go On and The New Normal. Go On‘s numbers have been respectable, and networks are always hopeful that the Friends cast members still have the juice. Still, this tends to appeal to a small, dedicated audience, like we saw with Cougar Town. If NBC wants to rebuild Thursday with existing shows, I could see Go On permanently making the move. It’s already going against Fox’s New Girl, which is also somewhat low-rated, but has stronger buzz, yet it was successful in scaring ABC’s Happy Endings out of the Tuesday 9 PM timeslot. If NBC decides to cede Thursday supremacy to CBS and The Big Bang Theory, then they might leave Go On where it is, as it does keep them competitive.

Meanwhile, NBC also has The New Normal, which was their attempt to get in on the Modern Family action. I see this going away. It’s a bit of a failed experiment, as it doesn’t have anywhere near the heart of Modern Family, nor does it have the buzz. In this day and age, ratings aren’t so important as long as people are talking about your show. Mad Men does well for basic cable, but it’s not breaking records like The Walking Dead. Still, it has a dedicated fan base, and critical acclaim. The New Normal has neither. Gone.

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Here’s a chance to discuss something: just because something has buzz it doesn’t mean it has stellar ratings. It just means that A) you get your news from like-minded sources and/or B) it has a small, yet vocal, fan base. A lot of “hits” are actually just *cult* hits. Take Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Whedon fans will swear it was the huge hit, but that’s not actually true. It was huge for The WB, but they were still the #5 network. Buffy wasn’t beating Frasier or Home Improvement. Buffy‘s ratings average peaked at 5.3 million viewers, which really wasn’t anything to write home about at the time. While those numbers would be stronger today, keep in mind that the TBS reruns of The Big Bang Theory have higher ratings. The important thing was that these were YOUNG viewers – the kind that advertisers love. A sizable group of younger viewers can actually be more important than larger overall audience numbers in many cases.

Wednesday

This season, NBC’s comedy output on Wednesday night was confined to the 8 PM hour. The night launched in the fall with Animal Hospital and Guys With Kids. The former should’ve been an obvious failure to anyone who’d heard the title, yet NBC still gave it a shot. When it was cancelled, Whitney‘s originally scheduled midseason return moved up on the schedule. Guys With Kids seemed promising because it was produced by Jimmy Fallon, and NBC really thought folks would be interested in seeing skinny Anthony Anderson and older Vanessa Huxtable. It managed to get through its entire order, but that show ain’t coming back.

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Whitney‘s a bit of an anomaly. It’s the show that comes to work, does its job and leaves. People decided to hate the show when NBC decided to shove it down our throats during all the promos during the Olympics. Even if it had been the best show on the air, it didn’t warrant that type of marketing. By the time it debuted, nobody wanted it to succeed. Somehow, it managed to get a second season (probably because it was a lot stronger than its hour-mate, Are You There, Chelsea?), and actually became a much stronger show. What began as a cheap, comedian-starring multi-cam sitcom became an exploration of modern-day relationships. If you were a fan of Mad About You, you’d probably be a fan of Whitney 2.0. Sadly, most people were too sick of her to give it a chance. While the ratings are respectable for NBC, it just doesn’t do anything for them, good or bad. It could be rewarded for holding its own, but it doesn’t really contribute to the network’s overall identity. It might actually benefit NBC to invest in more shows like this, as it harkens back to the early days of Must See Thursday. Sadly, I don’t think today’s TV climate can really support that type of show anymore. Remove the studio audience, and it might have a better shot. There’s no 3rd season for Whitney.

Thursday

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What. A. Mess. This season has seen 30 Rock, Community, Parks & Recreation, The Office, Up All Night, and 1600 Penn all fighting for 4 timeslots. 30 Rock started the season knowing it was the end, and it’s now gone. The Office wraps up in May. Those can be considered the success stories – because their obits are already written. Then things just get worse.

Up All Night imploded behind the scenes because the show wasn’t working. Like Whitney‘s modern take on relationships, Up All Night followed suit. Christina Applegate was a new mom who produced her diva-esque best friend’s (Maya Rudolph) daytime talk show. Appelgate’s husband, Will Arnett, gave up his corporate law gig to be a stay at home dad, while Applegate wrestled with the guilt of having to juggle career and motherhood. They started season 2 by adding a brother for Christina Applegate’s character, but they also eliminated the sole plot reason for Maya Rudolph and Christina Applegate to interact – Rudolph’s talk show gets canceled, and both women are forced to figure out what to do with their lives now that 50% of their day is now free and unscheduled. NBC knew it had a strong cast, but didn’t know what to do with them. After seeing Applegate host Saturday Night Live, they realized that she’s great with a studio audience. With Arnett and Rudolph’s comedic background, they figured the entire cast would benefit from a format change, so they decided to shut down production, midseason, to retool the show from a single-cam comedy to a multi-cam show with studio audience. And then it all fell apart. Applegate quit. Arnett started auditioning for other shows, and the show is basically dead in the water. Sad, because it was originally a smart show. Anyway, it’s gone.

1600 Penn really isn’t even worth talking about. NBC basically gave it the Whitney treatment in terms of promotion. However, even with a cast including Bill Pullman and Jenna Elfman, it’s not a good show. It’s the kind of thing Fox used to burn off on Tuesday nights. It’s nowhere near the “NBC Pedigree”, and the numbers show it. If anything, it has served to give mainstream exposure to co-creator and star, Book of Mormon‘s Josh Gad, while merely serving as a resume placeholder for the rest of the cast. It’s gone.

Parks & Rec is probably the smartest show still on NBC’s schedule. That said, it’s always had more buzz than ratings. Couple that with the fact that its main arc is complete. I mean, sure they could have some farfetched storyline about Leslie Knope running for President, but that would be absurd. The show began with Leslie Knope as an up and coming city government manager whose career goals were higher, and her luck with men was lower. Her main goal was to revitalize a giant pit in her best friend’s back yard. Now, she’s on city council, just got married, and the pit is currently being redeveloped to benefit the people of Pawnee. The show is done. Yes, they could always come up with some reason to keep it going. We saw that the infusion of Rob Lowe and Adam Scott breathed new life into the show. Still, it has accomplished everything it set out to do. This is going to disappoint some folks, but I say the show’s a goner.

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Finally, we get to Community. Where to begin? It’s never had great ratings, but it’s got buzz off the charts. It’s a smart show, that sometimes delves too far into parody that it loses itself. Then, there were the battles. Creator Dan Harmon vs. Costar Chevy Chase, Dan Harmon vs. NBC, Chevy Chase vs. everyone else. Behind the scenes, the show’s a clusterfuck. The creator and showrunner was fired, the show’s premiere was pushed to February, and then Chevy Chase quit/was fired (?) just before production wrapped on the season. If you didn’t know all of this, you’d still notice something was off just by watching. I felt like Harmon lent a sardonic wit to the enterprise that just isn’t there anymore. Instead, there’s a hint of the sort of treacly sentimentality that the old incarnation of the show would’ve parodied. Everyone’s going through the motions, but it’s just not the same show. Personally, I wasn’t even a fan of last season, as I felt too many episode relied on “See what we did there?” posturing, but it was still a better show than its current incarnation. Even with its vocal fan base demanding its return to the schedule (after all, it was originally meant to air on Friday night – an assured death sentence – but NBC’s scheduling woes allowed it to come back to Thursday nights), the ratings aren’t much better than they’ve ever been. The biggest strike against it, however, is that this same fan base has turned against the show, noting the same things I’ve mentioned above. At this point, people don’t necessarily want the show to be cancelled, but they also aren’t enjoying what they’re seeing. This thing was so on the bubble in terms of renewal that it would take a Kickstarter to keep it alive in today’s TV climate. I really hate to say it, but Community‘s a goner.

So, there you have it: at the end of the day, Go On is basically NBC’s only hope in the comedy sector. In my best Chandler Bing, “Could things BE any more dire?” Anyway, what do I know? I’m just a dude who was raised  by television. What are y’all’s thoughts on the whole thing?