Ratings roundup: Five reasons Community could see season four

Ratings roundup: Five reasons Community could see season four

When news went out that Community had been left off NBC’s midseason schedule, it was only natural for fans to panic. After all, series are rarely pulled from network schedules, only to return in triumph a few months later. More often than not, a long hiatus is the final nail in the coffin of a low-rated show, something that drives away whatever fans are left. Though it wasn’t accurate—and though NBC was careful to say the exact opposite—it was understandable when some fans began claiming the show had been “canceled,” and that it was time to prepare for the worst. When a similar fate seemed to befall ABC’s quirky cult sitcom Cougar Town, it was understandable to think that an unusual time, when the major broadcast networks could provide a weekly timeslot for some weird, sitcom fun, was coming to an end. Was Parks & Recreation—itself low-rated—going to become the last bastion of ultra-quality comedy on network TV?

The opposite of this viewpoint—neither of these shows has been canceled yet, so let’s all calm down just a bit—popped up just as quickly, with a Vulture article assessing Community’s chances as roughly 70-30 in favor of renewal taking the lead as the most positive bit of spin on the NBC news out there, and no less than Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence saying on Twitter that he fully expected the show to run another three seasons, despite the fact that its debut had been delayed until March and its episode order had been cut from 22 episodes to 15. This optimism carried over to both shows’ respective fan-bases, and soon, the Internet was filled with cries to save either (or both) of them.

Before we get into the meat of this article, a few words about fan campaigns: While a handful of fan campaigns have been successful over the years, the vast majority have not. This is not to say that successful examples exist—including everything from Cagney And Lacey to Chuck—but the most successful fan campaigns have involved an element of actually doing something. At present, the Community and Cougar Town efforts, which are, admittedly, in their nascent periods, are mostly centered on getting both shows trending on Twitter or getting lots of people to sign online petitions. And that’s all well and good as it goes—it’s certainly better than nothing—but at some point, the whole thing is going to have to shift to physical action to make a difference in either NBC or ABC’s decisions. Networks do respond to fan passion, but they only respond when they see it in tangible ways. And that usually means writing actual letters and sending them through the postal service to both the network and any of the show’s regular advertisers. (The Chuck fans were so successful because they were able to rope Subway into the whole renewal decision as well.) So if you’re trying to think of a way to really help the show while it’s gone, start with a 44-cent stamp.

Will that stamp be worth the quarter, dime, nickel, and four pennies you spend on it, though? Why send NBC a letter if the show’s as good as canceled? you might ask. And you wouldn’t be wrong to ask that, necessarily. Though we’re more optimistic about the show’s renewal chances than many (though perhaps not as optimistic as Joe Adalian, linked above), even we won’t deny that the show gets incredibly low ratings, ratings that would have meant cancellation on any other network and wouldn’t leave anybody blaming NBC if it, indeed, pulled the plug. And, yes, it’s almost never a good sign when a show is pulled from the schedule like that. All of the shows we can think of that managed renewals after being off the schedule for a while fit the Cougar Town model—gone for a long time, then returning at midseason—far more than they fit the Community model of being on the air at season’s start, then going away and coming back. (All the same, a renewal after this sort of treatment isn’t unprecedented, just much, much rarer.)

But heading into the holiday weekend, we’ve come up with five good reasons the benching of Community doesn’t mean cancellation. Consider this an official call to action to correct anybody you see saying the show is canceled or even as good as canceled. (Many of the below apply to Cougar Town, too, though we’ll hopefully deal with that program in a separate post later on down the line.

1.) NBC’s number one priority right now is turning Up All Night into the successor to The Office it’s needed for a long time. We realize this doesn’t sound like a point in Community’s favor, but bear with us. Though it’s slumped in the ratings this season, The Office is by far NBC’s biggest comedy hit. Yet everything the network has stuck after the show has struggled, one way or another. 30 Rock hung on the best in that slot, but it never turned into anything more than a timeslot hit, while Outsourced and Parks & Recreation spent last year struggling to retain The Office’s numbers. (Outsourced actually slightly outperformed P&R in this regard, which baffles us but, hey, people like stereotype humor, right?) Now, Whitney has sunk like a stone after the show, its numbers sinking to, well, nearly Community levels in recent weeks.

Enter Up All Night.

As mentioned in the Vulture article above, Up All Night is one of the most time-shifted shows on network TV. People don’t make it their first priority, but they are watching it, and they’re watching it in a particularly unprotected timeslot, where it goes up against Survivor, The X Factor, and ABC’s much more popular family comedies. This would indicate there’s an upside to putting the show in a place where it can consolidate as many of those people as possible. (Remember: Networks love to boast about time-shifting because it largely proves that the network TV audience hasn’t utterly evaporated, but advertisers don’t give a shit that you’ve cut the cable and switched to DVR/Hulu/whatever.)  That means the sole protected spot on the NBC lineup: the post-Office slot. And while we’d love to see Community get a shot in that slot, it did way back at the start of season one and promptly lost much of the preceding show’s audience. For better or worse, Community is a show making a stand with the audience it has, not a potential audience that it could find, like Up All Night has.

Why is this a good sign for Community then? If you accept our thesis that Up All Night is now NBC’s biggest priority, then it makes the removal of Community seem less malicious in intent. 30 Rock was always coming back at midseason, and NBC was always going to have to stick it somewhere. The most likely slot would have been after The Office, but the relative success of Up All Night made that more attractive for the younger show. That meant bumping Community or Parks & Recreation, and the latter draws slightly higher ratings and already sat out half of last season. Though it would have been interesting to see NBC resurrect its three-hour comedy bloc and toss Community at 10, where its small audience (assuming all of its viewers followed the show there) would have been less out of place, we really do believe NBC when it says Community is coming back sometime later in the spring and that it still supports the show. There’s just less upside for it than Up All Night. Plus…

2.) 30 Rock isn’t likely to significantly outperform Community at 8 p.m., and it’s closer to the end of its run than the beginning. 30 Rock is entering its sixth season. With actors like Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin in the cast, that means it’s starting to creep up toward the line where any money NBC-Universal makes out of having more episodes to syndicate will be hurt by how much more it costs to produce episodes of the show now than it did in the first five seasons. (All shows that enter syndication go through this process, by simple virtue of the fact that syndication remains the best way to make money off a television series.) At best, 30 Rock has a seventh season left in it, and we wouldn’t be surprised if season six is the end, particularly if Baldwin makes good on his threats to leave the show at the end of this season. In general, television prefers younger shows to older shows, and here, a lot of the factors that led NBC to prefer Up All Night to Community will lead the network to prefer Community to 30 Rock when renewal time comes.

Plus, it’s hard to imagine 30 Rock—never a strong show on its own—drawing significantly larger ratings than Community was in that time slot for one simple reason: That’s a terrible time slot to put shows  that primarily attract urban professionals (as all of NBC’s comedies do) in. Family sitcoms can and have worked at 8 p.m., but the list of sitcoms aimed at urbanites that have worked in that timeslot in the last five years is largely confined to How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory. (And both of those shows have a crossover with the family audience.) The young urban professionals NBC tends to program toward are the audience that also does the most time-shifting, which means…

3.)Though advertisers don’t terribly care about time-shifting, the networks do. Well, maybe not CBS. But the other four networks will talk your ear off about how much their numbers improve when you add in DVR viewing if you let them. For all of the grousing from modern-day viewers about how networks should understand that the audience doesn’t always watch things live, it can get lost that networks really, really do understand that. They both love it—because it proves network is still the best way to reach a mass audience—and hate it—because advertisers refuse to pay up based on the number of viewers a show adds online or on DVR. And here’s the thing: Community does extraordinarily well in these types of metrics. It doesn’t immediately become a top 10 hit or anything, but it often increases its audience by over 40 percent (a very good number for these sorts of things), and many weeks, the only NBC comedy to beat it in this measure is Up All Night (see above).

NBC understands the show skews young and educated—it’s one of the top three shows on television for young viewers with college degrees, once time-shifting is added in—and that demographic does command a certain amount of respect from advertisers. (The only reason CBS keeps The Good Wife around is because rich people like it, for instance.) The problem comes when figuring out how to monetize the viewers who don’t have time to watch Community live or make it second priority to The Big Bang Theory or The X Factor (heresy!). And here’s where a fan campaign could really help, honestly. A phalanx of letters sent to one of the show’s most regular advertisers (we’re thinking Target, but there are likely better options) saying, “Hey, I watch this show on DVR, but I also shop at your store, and I noticed your ad, and I’ll keep shopping there because you support this show,” could help shift attitudes in many ways. And that’s because…

4.) Network television is increasingly about managing to the margins. Terra Nova gets around twice the number of viewers Community gets most weeks and sometimes more than that. But is there anybody out there who honestly thinks the show will be back come the fall of 2012, even if it’s been a self-starter in a tough timeslot? We have our doubts. Granted, a lot of that has to do with how expensive the show is. (A show that cost a third as much that got roughly the same ratings would have a better shot at returning.) But just as much of it has to do with the fact that nobody seems terribly dedicated to Terra Nova. It doesn’t inspire critical rapture. It doesn’t command an ultra-intense online fanbase. And it doesn’t inspire intense speculation or discussion. This is not to say that Fox won’t renew Terra Nova, and it’s not  to say that it would be wrong to. But it is to say that network TV increasingly seems to be about balancing the big hits—which every network wants—with just the right amount of shows with dedicated cult audiences.

Does this always work? No. Neither Dollhouse nor Better Off Ted justified their respective networks’ faith in them by hanging on to enough of their cult audiences in their second seasons. They had dedicated fans  and critics, but they simply didn’t make financial sense for their networks. Similarly, Fringe, which has seen its audiences grow smaller and smaller in recent weeks—despite good DVR numbers—increasingly seems like a  long shot for a season five. And one has to assume that NBC, a network with no big hits, has to be antsy to find one—particularly if The Voice, which did well last spring by going up at a relatively uncompetitive time of the year, doesn’t grow in season two. Indeed, this whole point might seem to be more about Cougar Town, which has a small cult but a larger one than Community’s than the other show. (Bill Lawrence has made this exact argument in the past, actually, and suggested it's why his low-rated shows with devoted audiences have become valuable to networks, against all odds.)

But at the same time, there’s something to be said—in terms of a network’s point of view—for keeping around a show that inspires the kind of fervor that Community does. And there’s one simple reason for this: The audience—unlike Terra Nova or Fringe’s—is largely stable. It’s small, but NBC probably has some faith that if it brings the show back at 10 p.m. on Thursdays or 9 p.m. on Fridays or something, it will attract roughly the same fan base. (There’s also something to be said for the idea that removing the show from the schedule provides a lot of free promotion for it via fan outrage. Indeed, ratings ticked up ever so slightly last week after all of the grousing.) And while it’s more expensive than, say, Whitney, Community is still much cheaper than something like Prime Suspect, which has been all but canceled. (We won’t say much about Whitney, except to say that Fox moving the show opposite American Idol doesn’t indicate that the network terribly wants to keep the show alive. That the network chose a different show to play sacrificial lamb Wednesdays at 8 is another point in Community’s favor.) Community will never be a big hit, but the  network has every chance to turn it into a building block, something that draws a predictable audience that can be monetized just enough to allow the network some of the prestige that comes from having the show on the schedule, thanks to its critical respect and love from a desirable fan demographic. Sure, this could all be the sort of stuff TV executives tell TV critics because it’s what we want to hear, but…

5.) It’s not like NBC has much of anything else. NBC’s spring schedule is predicated on exactly two things: The Super Bowl will help The Voice turn into the mega-hit the network needs, maintaining its solid performance from last season, and The Voice will boost the new drama Smash into the breakout scripted hit NBC desperately needs. And while we’re skeptical that this will happen—the market for singing competitions seems pretty saturated right now, and The Voice has never had to face serious competition—let’s assume it does work out. That only fixes one night of the schedule. In fact, let’s assume that Up All Night turns into a huge hit post-Office, too. That only fixes one additional half-hour time slot. The network still has to deal with the fact that The Office and 30 Rock will both probably be gone soon, that it doesn’t have a single hit drama, and that essentially every segment of its schedule is a disaster zone. Though Community would likely be a niche program on any network, it’s hard not to imagine that it would be doing much better on ABC or Fox or, hell, even CBS (though it’s hard to imagine where CBS would even put it). Assuming 30 Rock struggles—and it’s hard to imagine it won’t—it’ll be proof positive that Community was hurt simply by being stuck in the most competitive timeslot on television and having to be on NBC.

Plus, there’s the fact that the show is co-produced by Sony and NBC Universal. And while Sony owns the lucrative DVD and international rights to the show, NBC Universal will get a small piece of the syndication pie. And Sony, which is desperate for shows to sell into syndication—even shows that are low-rated oddities at best—is probably going to go out of its way to make a deal with NBC that gets Community one last season designed to push it past the 88 episodes needed for syndication, a deal that would be more lucrative than just selling the show into cable reruns (which would be theoretically possible with the current number of episodes—and, honestly, might help the show in first-run). It’s possible no price would be good enough for NBC, but Sony’s cut crazy deals in the past, and it just might do so again. It’s not impossible to imagine a Community that’s slowly burning off a 22-episode fourth season on Friday nights, simply because all involved want a little sweet, sweet syndication cash. (Reportedly, this was one of the reasons Fringe was unexpectedly renewed last season, even though serialized series rarely do well in syndication.)

All of this could fall through. 30 Rock could start drawing consistent 2.5’s at 8 p.m. Whitney could become a monster hit Wednesdays at 8. The Voice could raise all NBC boats just when Community isn’t around to benefit. Obviously, we don’t know what the future will bring, and none of us knows exactly what NBC's economics look like. But there’s just as good a case to be made for Community returning for a season four as there is for the show being canceled outright. Though the situation has been compared to Fox yanking Arrested Development from the schedule during that show’s third season, we’re not yet in an analogous position. The show’s order hasn’t been cut, and NBC insists it will be back—at a time when fan excitement over the return could seriously help it in the ratings. (For a recent example of this, see How I Met Your Mother in its third season, though that interruption was caused by the writers strike.) If Community is renewed, that renewal will have next to nothing to do with ratings. That was true before the show was pulled, and it will be true after, too. Anything, obviously, could happen, but there’s still room for optimism, and there’s still room to hope this will all work out in the end. Watch those ads, get out your stamps, and get ready. The story’s just beginning.