PREVIOUSLY ON THE TELEVISION CRITICS ASSOCIATION PRESS TOUR: NBC blew up its comedy brand, and bet big on The Voice. At least as far as singing contests were concerned, that was a wise move, and The Peacock swaggered into 2013 as a punching-bag-turned-qualified success, boosted to the top of the broadcast heap by big Voice numbers and the always dependable National Football League.
Then the bottom (and the singing competition) dropped out for a few months, which led to a spell of righting the ship that’s nearly returned the network to the place of power at which it began the year.
At NBC, “flat is the new up,” a headline-ready (hey, it worked!) sound bite chairman Robert Greenblatt used to describe his network’s ability to avoid the Nielsens erosion plaguing its competitors. By its own numbers—which the other broadcast outlets will surely counter in their own exec sessions—NBC notes no major year-to-year losses in viewership. That prompts the questions “Over what time period?” and “How will that look once you’re comparing Hollywood Game Night numbers to London Olympics numbers?”, but in a climate where the network model could keel over at any minute, that’s progress.
Progress that one of the session’s many PowerPoint slides called a “year of improvement,” a year when Revolution premièred big (then waited for The Voice to come back to keep those big numbers) leading into a year when The Michael J. Fox show could probably anchor its own night, but needs some Thursday-night insulation to decrease the risk its own massive belly flop. NBC’s fortunes may be better than they were a year ago—and here, the network wants “better” to read “about the same”—but it’s still looking to use the big, prominent platforms like Sunday Night Football and the Winter Olympics (which are never as popular as their summer equivalent) to goose interest in new programming. In that sense, things are truly the same as they were last year, when the London games were used as a platform to launch Go On and Animal Practice. The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon is a totally different animal than those two canceled series, but if they set a pattern for future Olympic watches… pray for Questo as the new Tonight Show fires up amid the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Both the Sochi games and Sunday Night Football are being paneled at NBC’s press-tour day, which could be taken as evidence that Greenblatt and company are truly serious about staying in the “event” game—though it could just be that it’s too early in Dracula’sproduction process to bring that show to the tour, so there are holes that needed to be filled. (Though NBC also distributed the first two episodes of Dracula to critics, so…) The real indication of the network’s commitment to events would be the number of times the word “events” came up in Greenblatt’s address, used in reference to a range of topics including but not limited to an upcoming live broadcast of The Sound Of Music. Can The Rockefeller Center Salute To Fireworks be far behind?
The non-sports events in which the network has the greatest stakes are the number of series mini- and limited announced during the session: A Hilary Clinton biography starring Diane Lane, remakes of Rosemary’s Baby and Tommyknockers, and a Mark Burnett-produced look at the pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony. Joining another Burnett product, A.D.: After The Bible, that seems to lock up some crucial late-fall/early-winter landscape in future seasons, which NBC executives encourage you to plan your lives around and tweet along with—though maybe you should keep your opinions about how the devil in A.D. looks like the president of the United States to yourself. That doesn’t entirely relieve the dilemma of programming year-round—because, as Greenblatt said in response to one question about comparing numbers across the entire, traditional TV season, the September-to-May schedule hardly matters any more. At the very least, limited-run could prove to be a limited-risk venture for NBC when its new shows struggle to reach the 22-episode mark.
And with Michael J. Fox picked up with a 22-episode commitment, the other new shows NBC brings to market this fall will feel a tremendous amount of pressure to perform in a Nielsens-meaningful way. Not that the network is averse to risk, as evidenced by its renewal of Hannibal, which NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke cited specifically as a message to creators that her network is willing to nurture more adventurous programming. Hannibal’s also a property worth keeping around because NBC isn’t footing the whole bill for it; it also provided Greenblatt’s slideshow with one of its most startling stats, noting an 82 percent ratings growth with DVR viewing factored in. (As The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff noted, that’s still an average audience less than 3 million viewers strong, but still…) With Community finally, truly on its way out, it’s handing over its status as the symbolic nod to NBC’s commitment to prestigious-if-not-necessarily-high-rated shows to Hannibal Lecter.
Which makes sense, because NBC’s all about maintaining in the late summer of 2013. It could (and probably will) lose that sustained momentum when The Voice goes into hibernation between seasons five and six, but the outloook for the network is, amazingly, not as dire as it was six months ago. “Improvement” for a broadcast network may never again resemble upward momentum, but unless NBC has to clear the comedy deck all over again in 2014, it won’t be reduced to declaring “down” as the new “up.”