NBC at the TCA winter press tour: NBC is still NBC; fortunately, so is everybody else
Here is a brief list of shows you may care about that were not mentioned once, by questioners or NBC executives, during Sunday morning's NBC executive session at the winter Television Critics Association press tour: Parks & Recreation, 30 Rock, The Office, Community. If you expand that to shows you may care about that were only briefly mentioned, you could include Parenthood and Grimm as well. (The former was mentioned as an all-purpose panacea to any other problems the network has with gunplay or violence, by network chairman Bob Greenblatt, while the latter was mentioned as Friday’s number one show, but nobody cares about Fridays.) Some of these topics came up in the post-panel scrum, but for the most part, the network wanted to impart one message: NBC is back in first place, baby, just in time for ratings to become officially meaningless!
Yes, NBC won the fall in the 18-49-year-old demographic, all important to advertisers, thanks largely to a strong year for Sunday Night Football, the rise of The Voice, and the out-of-the-box success of Revolution. But now NBC has no more football games to air, and the latter two shows are gone until March. The one fall success that will stick around—Go On—will get a chance to prove if it can succeed without a Voice lead-in, but it doesn’t seem all that likely anyone will say, “Hey, that new Matthew Perry sitcom is airing a new episode tonight, right after a full hour of Betty White’s Off Their Rockers!” For better or worse, NBC is NBC again. In February, it’s even going to start airing Community up against the surging Big Bang Theory, like it’s 2010 again or something. But, honestly, just being NBC might be good enough for now.
Because here’s the thing nobody at the networks wants to talk about: NBC’s rise has been at least one part due to The Voice and at least two parts due to the fact that everybody else became NBC. As The X Factor basically flopped and New Girl didn’t prove as resilient as it had once seemed, Fox sank all the way from first to fourth. ABC hasn’t sunk that much, but Dancing With The Stars fell off a cliff, and the network is so reliant on the strength of Modern Family that Ty Burrell could demand his very own country and probably get it. CBS is hanging on, but it’s increasingly thanks to an older audience, with only The Big Bang Theory and maybe Person Of Interest showing real strength in the demo this season. Everything else has slumped.
All of this is to say that NBC tried to hold a triumphant executive session—complete with Greenblatt being joined by NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke and late night president Paul Telegdy to boast of their terrific fall—but they kept getting tripped up by the fact that their fall wasn’t that terrific; the definition of being a success on network television has just eroded to such a point that Parenthood is basically a cinch for a fifth season renewal, despite not rising all that much in the ratings season-to-season. The show now often wins its timeslot in the demo, but that’s because Vegas and Private Practice just do so poorly, not because America has Peter Krause fever (though it should).
Greenblatt bragged in his opening remarks—which featured such meaningless statistics as the idea that NBC’s median viewership age has fallen by 0.6 of a year—about how the network’s plan to exploit the Olympics as a promotional platform, then move The Voice to fall, had paid off, and he was right, but if everybody else had returned at full strength, the tone of the press conference would have been very different. Instead, NBC took a couple of steps up out of the basement, then the other three networks ran down the stairs to meet it. (Well, Fox kept going and really admired the shag carpeting, lava lamp, and black light NBC had installed down there over the last several years, but we’ll get to all of that on Tuesday.)
For years, people who write about TV have been wondering just what the tipping point would be, when DVR usage, online streaming, and pirated viewing of TV broadcasts would become so significant that networks would essentially have to invent a new business model. The networks aren’t at that point yet, but they’re so close that everybody’s talking about it with great confidence, as if the Internet hasn’t thrown a great fear of the unknown into their souls. There’s still far more money to be made in the old model, the sort of money that can still afford to produce big, ambitious shows like Revolution, as opposed to smaller-scale things like reality series and multi-camera sitcoms, than there is to be made under any new model. But the tipping point is almost here.
Ironically enough, all of this makes Greenblatt particularly well-suited to leading NBC through the fast-approaching dark ages. He mentioned during the panel that while working as the head of Showtime, he was quick to realize that alternative distribution models—in the cable world, that meant airing Dexter five or six times a week—were the way to get people watching and talking. He knows his way around an alternative viewing platform, and he’ll hopefully exploit that as DVRs and Hulu and Netflix and torrents become more valuable to the networks. (Okay, that last one will never become valuable to them.)
Yet at the same time, he also seems uniquely incapable of exploiting the new reality. He and Salke both talked about shows that would get people talking and wanting to have certain shows like that on their airwaves. Salke specifically mentioned Girls and Homeland as shows that have gotten people talking in the past year. But those shows, discussion-provoking though they were, only could have gotten on the air because HBO and Showtime, respectively, have the freedom of a giant subscriber base that gives them the financial ability to take some risks.
Even that, though, doesn’t compare to the fact that NBC already has shows that people talk about a lot. They’re just shows (outside of Parks) that the network can’t usher on and off the air quickly enough. Now, granted, NBC has extended Community far more chances than the show, frankly, deserved, but it’s also replaced the series’ showrunner and placed it in a situation where it will be very difficult for it to win. Could the show get a fifth season and be as good as it had been? In both cases, the answer is assuredly yes. But at the same time, the executives are deflecting a bit by saying they want shows people “talk” about. They had a bunch of those shows; they didn’t work. Now, they’ll be just happy with singing competitions.
Other news from the NBC executive panel:
- NBC’s fall was successful enough that it now has a bunch of stuff it doesn’t know where to schedule. In particular, it seems eager to avoid the weird glut of serial killer dramas that are rapidly cropping up this season, and its new Hannibal, from Bryan Fuller, may wait until summer, as might Save Me, which was the network’s best comedy pilot this development season (not that this is saying much), simply because it’s slightly more cerebral than what NBC is up to these days.
- The network has picked up a 13-episode series set at a summer camp called Camp. Sadly, it doesn’t appear it will feature Anna Kendrick singing “Ladies Who Lunch.”
- Though it wasn’t announced during the panel, Greenblatt said in the post-panel scrum that he thought it unlikely Steve Carell would return for the final season of The Office and that he would love to see a fifth season of Community, stating that the fourth season is the same show with more heart. (A million other reports have already informed you of this; consider this the million-and-first.)
- Greenblatt also called Smash an “unqualified success” last year, despite having replaced the showrunner and softened the premise of the series, which is only tangentially about making a Broadway musical in the first handful of episodes sent out to critics.
- That Michael J. Fox sitcom NBC won the bidding war for? It has its first table read in two weeks, and it will incorporate Fox’s Parkinson’s disease into the scripts. The idea is that Fox plays a TV newsman forced to quit his job because of his condition. Once he moves back to his home, his family tries to adjust to the new status quo. A joke floated by Salke was that his kids would hear a clamor from the bedroom and wonder if dad was taking a nap (so his Parkinson’s controlling medication would have time to wear off) or their parents were having sex. Ha?
- Having successfully shored up Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, thanks to football and The Voice, again, NBC didn’t quite succeed in shoring up Wednesdays, as it had hoped to, since Animal Practice was such a bomb. (Greenblatt kept trying to explain why that one got on the air by saying that it tested really well internally! What this says about the corporate culture at NBC you can extrapolate.) Greenblatt said the attention for next year would be in shoring up Thursdays. You fans of the low-rated sitcoms can prepare.
- Why change Up All Night to a multi-camera sitcom and get rid of the creative team if NBC just wanted to keep working with Christina Applegate, Maya Rudolph, and Will Arnett? Nobody really said, but you can sort of read between the lines and realize it would just be too much money to release the actors from these contracts and come up with all new ones.