NBC at TCA: Continually at a crossroads with comedy, NBC once more reaches for the return of "Must See"

NBC at TCA: Continually at a crossroads with comedy, NBC once more reaches for the return of "Must See"

In his opening remarks before NBC’s executive session, Chairman Robert Greenblatt made a number of announcements, speaking about new event series like Emerald City (the first of the numerous, surely Peter Dinklage-hula-hooping-filled Wizard of Oz projects picked up), pilots like the Katherine-Heigl-starring CIA series State of Affairs, and events like Sound Of Music followup Peter Pan Live. However, as is often the case with sessions like this one, the past is the richer subject of conversation, and the past few months have not been kind to NBC’s Thursday night comedies.

Greenblatt wanted to focus on the future of comedy in his remarks. After acknowledging their Thursday challenges, Greenblatt laid out the future of NBC comedies: an overall deal with Amy Poehler (and a pilot ordered starring Natasha Lyonne), the existing overall deal with Parks And Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-creator Mike Schur, the pickup of Craig Robinson’s series, and the straight-to-series order for Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s series starring Ellie Kemper. After previously stating that they would need about three-to-five years to rebuild their lineup, Greenblatt says they’re in year three, and is happy with their momentum moving forward.

It’s telling, though, that Greenblatt did not mention a single returning comedy series in his responses. There was excitement about Poehler’s win at the Golden Globes and her future role at the network with an overall deal, but there was no sign that Parks And Recreation would be a cornerstone of that future until Greenblatt was asked about it later in the panel. Prompted to consider the future of the show (and Community), Greenblatt started out saying he was bullish about its future, before being asked to define bullish and making the clear statement that he expects Parks And Recreation to get a seventh season (which is not quite a renewal but is a strong statement nonetheless—as of a week ago, Schur had no sense of NBC’s future commitment to the series when talking with The A.V. Club). President Jennifer Salke chimed in to say that while this certainty may not extend to Community, this doesn’t mean Community won’t be moving forward. It was good news for fans of the two shows, as it suggests yet another year where NBC’s barely picked-up, critically beloved comedies have once again emerged as NBC’s safest bets moving forward, as no such confidence was expressed for the presumed-dead Sean Saves The World and The Michael J. Fox Show.

The future of NBC comedy is by far the most interesting story about the network, which had its second-straight No. 1 finish in the fall season on the backs of its stalwart reality hit The Voice and workmanlike new drama success The Blacklist. Even NBC’s risks, like the launch of the Sound Of Music Live, have this weird element of safety to them, such that their risks don’t extend into the rest of the network’s scheduling or programming. But NBC has been going in circles with its comedy development in the past few years, consistently returning to a crossroads only marginally different than the one it faced previously. The question of how to get out of this development cycle remains a mystery to NBC, which is why shows like Parks And Recreation and Community keep coming back to the schedule, pockets of certainty to allow it at least something approaching stability.

It’s the same logic that has kept comedy on Thursday nights. When Greenblatt was asked whether his choice to follow up his discussion of Thursday’s problems with news on comedy development was a sign that he remains tied to the Thursday comedy block that dates back to the Must See TV era, he suggests this is not the case. He gave no concrete plans for abandoning the block, but he emphasized that it has become a presumption: People just presume NBC will have comedy on Thursdays. But in an environment where audiences both presume comedy is on CBS on Thursdays and watch comedy on CBS on Thursdays, and where ABC has made great strides to control drama in the night’s final two hours, the predictability of NBC’s lineup has held no traction and offered no space for growth. Greenblatt wants to grow comedy: It’s why he focused on new development over old, needing to believe there’s still the chance for the next blockbuster comedy hit to emerge from NBC and rebuild the empire the network once was in this space.

Returning shows still have a place on the NBC schedule. Greenblatt cited his appreciation for Parenthood, which has offered strong year-over-year growth compared to the previous occupants of the 10 p.m. Thursday timeslot—the show has a chance to come back based on this, but it has no chance of being anything more than a good statistic in a conference like this one. The same goes for Revolution, cited by NBC as its next big hit at this time last year and this time relegated to a similar statistic as it builds on the comedies previously scheduled in its new Wednesday timeslot (but is way down from what NBC imagined it could be last year).

Television is an industry of momentum, and returning shows don’t bring momentum. Momentum is using the Olympics to launch the future of late night, with Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers’ respective launches in mid-to-late February. (They’ll be paneling later today.) Momentum is positioning Amy Poehler as the voice of comedy at the network, a cornerstone of its comedy brand beyond the six-season show she anchors. Momentum is picking up a closed-ended miniseries seriously called The Slap, which is about a domestic dispute wherein a family member slaps a child and starts a court case. As much as the latter series—from playwright Jon Robin Baitz—sounds like a strange choice, broadcast television is the business of strange choices. And when you consider that Greenblatt’s safest choice last year—The Michael J. Fox Show—was also one of the the season’s biggest bombs, it’s only logical that there would be some questionable swings in this year’s lineup—the moment a broadcast network delivers a lineup without a single questionable decision, it’s not preparing itself for the uncertainty of the audience it’s seeking out. (It’s when there’s nothing but questionable decisions that you start raising the alarms).

In comedy, NBC is taking another swing this spring with About A Boy and Growing Up Fisher. They’re both family comedies, which led me to ask NBC President Jennifer Salke about whether they’re approaching them differently after the failures of both Michael J. Fox and Sean Saves The World. The answer was both yes and no—she cited that the comedies had a bit more of an edge, which is ostensibly true but a fine distinction given the way Growing Up Fisher’s heart was central to the producers’ statements at the following panel and the presence of Parenthood and Friday Night Lights creator Jason Katims in the ultimately uplifting About A Boy. They’re approaching the comedies differently, but they’re still products of the same family comedy development season as the struggling series, an aim at a broader audience after the first swings for that audience—non-family comedies Go On and Animal Practice—flatlined. NBC now finds itself searching for elements of these new Tuesday series that can be rearticulated, finding the edge to pull in young viewers from The Voice while maintaining the broad audience of the Olympics.

All Winter Press Tour executive sessions are about rearticulation, the slight adjustments and subtle spins we associate with midseason shuffling. For NBC, the space it’s rearticulating most obviously—comedy—is the same space critics are most interested in, and the space where a key piece of the broadcast network’s history will either live or die in the remaining two years of Greenblatt’s planned rebuilding phase.

Stray observations:

  • The new project from Poehler starring Natasha Lyonne will involve a cast of senior actors, so let’s all dream cast older actors who deserve to be on a network television show. I’m starting with Rita Moreno based on last night’s SAG Awards.
  • Lots of praise for Saturday Night Live’s rating performance, but no questions regarding the series’ diversity on the panel itself, although it’s likely someone pushed the issue in the scrum following the panel (and it should be noted critics were at a disadvantage of probably being too tired after 11 days in Pasadena to watch last night’s episode).
  • The Jay Leno farewell began in earnest with Greenblatt’s expression of gratitude, announcing Billy Crystal and Garth Brooks as guests on Leno’s final program, which is a perfect microcosm of that show’s sensibility.
  • In the great debate over the meaning of “limited series,” “event series,” and “miniseries,” Greenblatt basically says they all mean nothing, citing CBS’ Under The Dome as an egregious case of semantic confusion. So if you were searching for clarity, look elsewhere.
  • No casting news regarding Peter Pan Live, but it was revealed in a scrum they are looking for a Peter Pan with a penis, which departs from a tradition of female actors in the role (including Broadway’s original Maria from The Sound Of Music, Mary Martin, who played the role on two NBC productions of the show that have been cited as a precursor to this new series of musicals).
  • After the morning panel with Hannibal’s cast (after which they were rushing back to Toronto to continue production on season two), Greenblatt thanked the critics in the room for their support of the series, but was not pressed on the threshold for renewal.

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