Fall schedule analysis: NBC whispers to the chrysalis, and what emerges is CBS

Fall schedule analysis: NBC whispers to the chrysalis, and what emerges is CBS

We're just going to keep using pictures of Bad Judge until they stop being amusing to us. (NBC)
We're just going to keep using pictures of Bad Judge until they stop being amusing to us. (NBC)

As always with NBC in the last 10 years, the kneejerk assumption with a new fall schedule is to jeer and laugh about how many dumb moves the network is making. (Something we did just last year.) But there are no good ways to say this other than this: This is a pretty solid, consistent schedule, and it will likely help NBC increase its level of competitiveness with CBS, particularly if the latter network continues to see its viewership advantage erode. NBC has more or less done this by becoming CBS, with a little bit of mid-00s Fox (thanks to the reliance on a singing competition) mixed in. Yeah, there are problem spots here, but they’re mostly stuck in places where NBC knows they’ll be problem spots, or they’re being used as sacrificial lambs to the great god football. The bumbling NBC that propped up critically acclaimed, low-rated comedies because it didn’t have a lot else is more or less gone. It’s been replaced by a hyper-competent CBS clone. Boo!

Let’s look at this night by night.

Mondays
8 p.m.: The Voice
10 p.m.: The Blacklist / STATE OF AFFAIRS (beginning Nov. 17)

Moving The Blacklist is the network’s big gamble next year, and we’ll talk more about that when we get down to Thursdays. So there’s little to say about this night until State Of Affairs arrives in November. In terms of launching a new drama, placing it after The Voice can clearly work (as both the canceled Revolution and The Blacklist have proved), but NBC also seems to be unnecessarily hamstringing itself by debuting the show in mid-November, when it will get, at best, three weeks after a Voice lead-in, before either having to fend for itself (in low-watched December, no less) or being taken off the schedule for a month. NBC is betting America just can’t wait to get more of that Katherine Heigl, which is entirely possible. What it’s probably not counting on is that shabby ripoffs of other shows—as State Of Affairs seems to be in terms of ABC’s Scandal—rarely work out too well.

Tuesdays
8 p.m.: The Voice
9 p.m.: MARRY ME
9:30 p.m.: About A Boy
10 p.m.: Chicago Fire

Marry Me appears to be the kind of quirky comedy with fast-paced dialogue that will be popular with the right subset of people (i.e., the internet) but quickly lose ratings because the mass audience never warms up to quirky comedies with fast-paced dialogue but low dramatic stakes. (Can two people in love stay in love? Signs point to yes!) We suspect we’ll like Marry Me; we have our doubts about many of the other people we know. (We’re also a bit wary about David Caspe and Casey Wilson being forced to go right back into the timeslot that killed Happy Endings, albeit on a different network under completely different circumstances.) But if Marry Me works, this is a schedule that stands to be even better than this year’s. It has really nice flow and two proven bookends in The Voice results show and Chicago Fire. Of possible concern to NBC: That results show’s ratings have been decaying rapidly this spring. Is that an indication of the general slump all shows go through in the spring? Or is it a larger trend in general, as when Idol’s results show started to wane, heralding the ratings decay of the entire franchise? Because if it’s the latter, NBC has a whole host of new problems.

Wednesdays
8 p.m.: THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA
9 p.m.: Law & Order: SVU
10 p.m.: Chicago P.D.

You can see this is a consistent, solid schedule because there’s so little to say about most nights. SVU and Chicago P.D. aren’t world-beaters, but they put up solid numbers, and they allow NBC to not have to worry about a night it’s had to worry about for a long time. (That Chicago P.D. has so easily stepped into that 10 p.m. slot must be a huge relief for the network.) Wednesday is a night that’s ripe for someone to come in and shake things up—CBS coasts on this night, and ABC’s comedies are showing vulnerabilities they weren’t even last year—but NBC isn’t going to be that network. At 8 p.m., NBC is going to find out if America still loves Debra Messing as much as the NBC Universal corporate family evidently does. But it’s a fairly low-risk prospect. If America does, indeed, love messin’ with Messing, then the show is a hit, and nobody has to worry about anything. If America doesn’t care, then NBC has tons of other dramas it could slot there, including some big, fairly easy to promote limited series. Mysteries Of Laura doesn’t seem like a certain hit here, but NBC is strong enough right now that it doesn’t have to be. One other point in its favor: It’s likely the only drama NBC will be promoting all summer, thanks to State Of Affairs being held for November.

Thursdays
8 p.m.: The Biggest Loser
9 p.m.: BAD JUDGE (The Blacklist beginning Feb. 5)
9:30 p.m.: A TO Z
10 p.m.: Parenthood (Deadline reports this will be Allegiance at midseason)

The operative theory for why NBC might bring back Community was to use it and Parks And Recreation (held for midseason) as quick, cheap, dirty ways to play out the string against CBS’ presumed football dominance in the fall. (I am doubtful Thursday football will be as dominant as the networks fear, but that’s for the CBS analysis.) I, as well as pretty much every other ratings analyst, assumed this would be the case. Community and Parks have always pulled fairly consistent numbers against tough competition, so why not use them as spackle somewhere on the lineup, a way to fill in gaps until midseason, when NBC will have a huge Super Bowl promotional platform? 

Well, we were all wrong. We forgot that if NBC was going to turn into CBS, it was going to start papering over weak spots in the schedule with even cheaper programming. Which means reality shows. The Biggest Loser still exists, and even if it’s a bomb in that timeslot (it won’t be), it’s so cheap that it won’t matter. NBC just needs to keep the lights on at 8, and reality isn’t a bad way to go if your only goal is maintenance. 

If I were working on either of those two comedies, however, I’d be worried. Both are being tossed into the maw of football, and then they’re meant to be yanked at midseason for The Blacklist. They seem like clear burnoffs, but NBC wasn’t going to rebuild its Thursday in one TV season. Still, if we’re looking for a single-camera comedy that’s relatively easy to promote and has a slight chance of breaking out (a la early My Name Is Earl), a show about Kate Walsh as a bad judge has some upsides. A To Z just seems to be placed there to die. Finally, the network renewed Parenthood for one last 13-episode season, which Jason Katims promises will be about the “circle of life,” so Zeek is totally dead this year, you guys. Whether or not Allegiance ends up there at midseason, at least the full description of it sounds less crazy than the original logline. We didn’t want to think Hope Davis had taken leave of her senses.

Finally, there’s the big news, which had been somewhat rumored over the last few days: The Blacklist is moving to Thursdays. What’s more, it’s moving to Thursdays in exactly the timeslot where it will be the most potentially effective, taking on the aging Greys Anatomy and CBS’ sputtering attempts to get a two-hour comedy bloc going. (Some have suggested CBS might move a drama back into that timeslot for the fall, but what drama on its schedule has as big of buzz as The Blacklist right now? The closest thing is probably Person Of Interest, and CBS is usually averse to moving a show two times in two seasons.) This is probably going to be a massive, massive success. Where the “probably” comes from is the fact that broadcast networks haven’t always been so great at putting shows on hiatus and then bringing them back a few months later, and Blacklist will be taking a long break between November 10 and February 5. However, most networks take the hiatus, then do a poor job of promoting the return, since they expect the audience to be right there when they come back. The success of Scandal’s lengthy break this season suggests with proper promotion, the audience can be pulled back easily enough, and how’s NBC going to be promoting the return of The Blacklist? With the post-Super Bowl episode just a few days before the return. Yeah, this one’s going to work.

Fridays
8 p.m.: Dateline NBC
9 p.m.: Grimm
10 p.m.: CONSTANTINE

The horror-ish Dracula actually did better after Grimm than Hannibal has done, albeit only slightly, so there’s a solid chance Constantine becomes the kind of performer NBC can bring back year after year. If it could share that timeslot between Constantine and Hannibal for another three or four years, NBC would probably die happy never having to worry about Fridays at 10 again. The other two timeslots remain stable.

Saturdays
8 p.m.: Encore programming

Or the night NBC will try to get you interested in The Mysteries Of Laura before saying, “Ah, screw it.”

Sundays
7 p.m.: Football Night In America
8:20 p.m.: NBC Sunday Night Football

TV’s biggest show returns in the same timeslot, with most of your favorite characters back as well. We can’t wait to see what wacky new antics Jay Cutler, TV’s best parody of the anti-vaccination brigade, gets up to!

A brief note on NBC’s large number of pickups for a schedule that remains this stable: Boy, doesn’t it seem like NBC, like Fox, is moving toward a year-round schedule? It’s hard to imagine some of those series airing in the spring, particularly the limited ones, which don’t seem to have a natural place to go. We’re guessing a lot of what’s on the list of shows not airing in the fall is going to slip to summer 2015. Also an interesting question: Will NBC replace Biggest Loser with comedies as a lead-in to The Blacklist? Or will it try to see if Blacklist can have a halo effect on another new drama at 8? The safe money’s on Parks at 8 and some new comedy at 8:30, but you never know with NBC. It’s gotten to such a strong position by carefully modulating its amount of risk, while managing the declines of older series. Bah. It was so much more fun when it was completely incompetent.

Stay tuned for all of our upfronts coverage. We’ll have some thoughts on NBC’s trailers later on.

Tomorrow: Fox kills pilot season and hopes it hasn’t killed itself. (It probably has. But not because it killed pilot season. Because TV is cyclical. Unless you’re ABC, apparently. Look, just come back tomorrow.)

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