Friday, February 22, 2013

NBC, WTF?! Can the 5th place network be saved?

As much as I detest linking to the blog Deadline Hollywood, they ran a piece yesterday that merits some mention.  In it, they pointed out that for the first time in history, NBC is set to finish 5th place in the ratings for sweeps - below Univision! Who would have thought the day would come when NBC was clamoring for 4th place?

Knowing this was sure to spark off a few dozen "how to save NBC" pieces from bloggers, I mused over how I'd get a piece of that action.  Frankly, I don't have much of a clue.  If I was an executive, I wouldn't know where to begin and if I was a writer, I'd struggle to figure out what kind of show would thrive there. 

In order to fix the problem, you have to first understand how NBC ended up here. Jeff Zucker's "management" is often pinpointed as the cause, with many analysts blaming his colossally-stupid strategy of giving the 10pm slot to The Jay Leno Show five nights a week.  To some extent, they're right.  That is the blow that NBC still hasn't recovered from.  You don't dump five hours of programming and not suffer the consequences for it, even if the issue was redressed midseason.  It played havoc on their line-up, led them to go light on developing new shows that season and most of all - gave their competition an open playing field to get a foothold.

When you get AIDS, you don't actually die of AIDS itself.  The virus takes out your immune system, leaving you vulnerable for something ELSE (like pneumonia) to finish the job.  The Jay Leno Show wasn't AIDS, it was pneumonia.  The AIDS was a decade or so of bad decisions that allowed the Leno blunder to carry the impact it did.

The root problem is that NBC did a poor job of growing new hits.  It spent much of the early 2000s coasting on past glories and squandering its lead.  2004 saw the retirement of Friends and Frasier, both of which had been strong performers for the lineup for ten years or more.  ER retired in 2009 after 15 years on the job and the first Law & Order enjoyed 20 years on NBC before being dumped in 2010.  Those were the tentpoles that helped carry NBC through the rougher days, and frankly, I think they might have been around long enough that NBC took them for granted.  They assumed it would be easy to maintain their audience levels.

And yet, few new long-term hits were launched. I lay at least part of the fault at NBC's greed.  See, in the 90s it became possible for networks to own the shows they broadcast.  I'm going to give an incredibly simplified explanation here, but networks pay license fees to the studios of the shows they broadcast.  Usually, this fee isn't enough to fully cover the cost of the show, which is why syndication dollars are so vital.  Through selling the show into syndication, the studio is able to recoup the losses it takes in the course of producing the show.  (The network makes its money in the ad dollars it sells.)

For example, Friends was produced by Warner Bros. Television and aired on NBC.  NBC got the high ad dollars that came from having one of the top-rated shows on TV, but it also paid out a lot in the license fee that kept that show going.  And it was WBTV who got the windfall that came from selling Friends into syndication, ensuring you can find an episode on TV at just about any hour of the day.  NBC had a good deal... but looking at this equation, I bet you can see how it could have been even better.

If the studio producing the show and the network distributing the show are both owned by the same corporation, that parent company gets the benefit of the ad dollars from the first-run AND the payday that comes from the syndication second run.  Which means that in looking at the numbers, a hypothetical NBC executive might be more invested in keeping a show going that originated from their corporate sibling instead of a show that emerged from a competitor.

This is the scenario that Scrubs found itself in.  In another era, the funny, appealing show might have been given a more stable time slot and in time, grown to be a hit that could be used to launch further hits.  Alas, it was produced by Touchstone, which is a division of ABC.  Thus, it was the red-headed stepchild of the NBC lineup.  Good enough to keep going, but never given preferential treatment.  The show's creator, Bill Lawrence, spoke of this frustration often, as the show bounced from slot-to-slot during its seven years on NBC.

Remember Coupling? That was an NBC Studios show.  Watching Ellie? NBC Studios. The Weber Show? Titans? Emeril? Working? Union Square?  (To be fair, they were also responsible for the longer-running Will & Grace and Crossing Jordan.)  And that's just addressing the shows before NBC and Universal merged.  NBCUniversal Television was responsible for The Bionic Woman remake and Raines, among others, though it did manage some wins with the L&O shows and Heroes.  The arrangement probably also helped keep 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights on the air well past the time when another network might have dropped them.

But I've drifted. My point is that NBC adopted a short-sighted strategy that made launching new hits harder.  Thus, when their tentpoles retired, nothing was on the bench.  Other networks make the same choices for the same reasons - don't get me wrong.  The difference is that no other network in as dire straits as NBC has made a strategic error like the Leno blunder.

All of this means that NBC is going into next season deep in the hole.  More shows are retiring this year and they're even less able to launch new hits than before.  This isn't a hiccup that can be course-corrected in a season.  Even if this year had been great for NBC, they'd still be at the start of a long rebuilding process.

So there's no simple checklist of "how to fix NBC."  Not immediately.  Next season will be a win if they just manage to stop the bleeding.  Despite all hopes, I don't know if Michael J. Fox's return to television is enough to turn that tide.  It's gonna take more than good shows - and more than one season.

With nothing to lose, here's what I'd try:

Shorter seasons, fewer breaks - As The Following has shown on Fox, big name stars will come to network TV when the time commitment is less than a full 22 episodes.  Also, the long breaks for reruns are murder on habit TV  It's worked for cable dramas, as has running all the new episodes in one unbroken stretch.  The trick is that this probably isn't a viable strategy for all their shows and it would require scheduling in a way that would put all the half-season shows on the same night so they can build off of each other.  (An alternative would be to schedule them as the lead-outs from their 2-hour length reality shows.)

Forget high concept, focus on character - Cheers, ER, Law & Order, The Office, Friends, Seinfeld: what do they all have in common? They're less about high concept and more about the people who inhabit the settings of the show. And those settings are fairly common locations: a bar, a hospital, a coffee shop.  Different genres, different approaches to storytelling, but memorable characters.  There's no high concept twist like "A bar on Mars!" Or "An emergency room staffed by aliens and OCD patients who have to work together to cure Space-AIDS!"

Hire veteran showrunners and give them a long leash - It didn't work out so well when neophyte showrunner Theresa Rebeck was given ample opportunity to run Smash into the ground.  Go after people who've been in the trenches before and make NBC a safe place for them to nurture their passion projects.

Hire new voices - particularly women and minorities - and give them room to develop - but don't be afraid to tighten the reigns if things aren't working.  There's still got to be room to take risks, but let's try to have fewer Next Callers, okay?

Honestly, I don't envy the people at the helm there.  Making those strategies work would be hard enough if the network was doing just below decently.  With where the numbers are now, the degree of difficulty is immense.


  1. FNL is an unusual case; it only stayed on the air after NBC's unique deal with DirecTV that allowed DirecTV to air entire seasons on its Audience Network before the show appeared on NBC.. however, it was one of those shows that attracted well-educated and wealthy viewers (sometimes a show like that can survive without being a typical "hit" because advertisers want to reach people with disposable incomes).

    I agree that it's annoying when shows get overly concepty...all the classic hits are about characters, not concepts (especially in comedy). And if you look at what people are obsessed with lately (HBO etc.) - a lot of those shows give writers more freedom.

    Another thing to address, though, is that we have to start defining a hit differently. Shows can't be expected to pull in 20 million viewers, and we have to start counting all the streaming and such.

    I think the hardest part about TV, though, is that quality shows don't always do well, and hits aren't always quality shows. It's difficult to make grand inferences from hits OR misses.

    more required reading:

  2. Apologize to Dan Harmon. Success starts with Showrunners, the poeple who give their lives to a program. Not that it'll make him come back, but maybe the next crop of people won't view you as the devil.

    1. Harmon is hardly blameless in the events that led to his firing. I don't really feel NBC owes him an apology.

      Though I agree with your larger point that maintaining good relations with showrunners is key.

  3. Scheduling-wise, I think a smarter longterm goal would be to shorten The Voice to 1 hour each night. That way they could launch new scripted shows beginning at 9pm on both Monday and Tuesday.

    But most of all, I think NBC has confused "broader" for generic. Animal Practice, Guys With Kids, Deception, Do No Harm -- they could do a lot better. And these shows tend to do skew older audiences. A few years ago, I wouldnt say internet "buzz" really mattered, but in an age of social media (look at Scandal ratings), they need original shows that get the same attention that cable shows do (Downton Abbey, Walking Dead, etc).

    1. James, they HAD a show that generated buzz: "Chuck", but NBC didn't even bother to acknowledge the fan support it had, despite tightrope ratings. They better hope the current geek-centric shows they got, "Revolution" and "Grimm", don't fall after their hiatuses.