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Notebook: Dissecting NBC's downfall

NBC

By Alec Stern, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 25, 2013

After ruling the 1990s and early 2000s with some of TV’s most iconic series including “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “ER,” NBC has struggled throughout the last 10 years. Questionable scheduling decisions and an inability to launch new shows has made NBC the butt of every joke about broadcast television. High-profile flops such as “Joey,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “The Jay Leno Show” were key factors in NBC’s fall from grace.

NBC’s fortune began to change in the spring of 2011 when “The Voice” became a surprise hit. Fast-forward to the fall of 2012 and NBC had finally emerged from its long and storied fourth-place position. It wasn’t third or even second, but No. 1, fueled by the first fall cycle of “The Voice” and TV’s biggest program, “Sunday Night Football.” “The Voice” also helped the ratings for two new shows, “Revolution” and “Go On.”

Despite the strong fall season, NBC was preparing for a rather cold winter. With the football season over and “The Voice” and “Revolution” on hiatus, ratings were bound to come back down to Earth. What nobody could have predicted, however, was just how far NBC would fall.

Every new show tanked. “Deception” premiered low in January and has since gone even lower, hitting just 3.2 million viewers and a 1.2 rating in the 18-to-49 demographic (by comparison, “Hawaii Five-O” averaged 9.6 million viewers and a 2.1 rating on the same night). “1600 Penn” has also drawn similarly dismal numbers and “Do No Harm” posted the lowest in-season drama premiere on record for a Big Four network (0.9 rating).

Established shows haven’t fared any better. “Law and Order: SVU” and “The Biggest Loser” now post series-low numbers, while “The Office” is crawling to the finish line. To put the nail in the coffin, high-profile musical drama “Smash” premiered to a more than 70-percent decline in viewership from the 2012 series opener and a 40-percent decline from its season-one finale.

With “The Voice” and “Revolution” back next month, Mondays and Tuesdays are sure to get a boost, but what’s NBC to do long-term? The decision to run “The Voice” twice a year will limit its lifespan, and “Revolution” is far from being a bona fide hit. As great as “The Voice” has been for NBC, it has no history of being able to launch self-sustainable shows, as evidenced by “Smash” and “Go On,” both of which plummeted without “The Voice” lead-in. If “Revolution” isn’t viable on its own, it won’t help NBC’s situation in the long run. Months-long hiatuses have also hurt highly serialized dramas in the past, as we have seen with the now-cancelled “FlashForward,” “V” and “The Event.”

NBC isn’t the only broadcast network struggling — ratings are down across the board. When the No. 1 drama on television is AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and no broadcast dramas are featured in the Outstanding Drama Series category at the Emmys, it’s clear that the television landscape has changed.

One change we may see is the broadcast networks adopting a cable-style model. Whereas a full season on broadcast typically consists of 22-24 episodes running nonconsecutively, cable series produce fewer episodes per season (typically 10-13), and run without preemption. Not only would this model lower costs, but also increase quality and make it easier to attract bigger names to broadcast. The networks have already started this process: NBC’s upcoming “Hannibal” will be limited to 13 episodes per season, while Kevin Bacon’s deal to star in FOX’s “The Following” is contingent on a maximum of 15 episodes per year. This will encourage viewers to stay committed to programs and limit the risk of having to pull shows mid-season.

NBC must also invest in comedy development. After this season, the Peacock will basically have to start from scratch. “The Office” will conclude its nine-year run in May, “30 Rock” has already completed its final season and every other comedy is at high risk of cancellation: “Guys With Kids,” “Whitney,” “Go On,” “The New Normal,” “1600 Penn,” “Up All Night” and “Community.” By May, it’s conceivable NBC will have only one sitcom left standing: “Parks and Recreation.”

NBC has already committed to 22 episodes of Michael J. Fox’s new untitled comedy. Other than that, NBC execs have emphasized their interest in endorsing “broad” comedies — think “Modern Family” versus “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apt. 23.” The former has wider appeal, while the latter limited its viewership to a more niche audience. This is a well-intentioned plan, as long as NBC doesn’t confuse broad with dumb (looking at you, “Animal Practice”).

This would likely result in an increase in multi-camera comedies on the schedule next year; the notion that this is a dying format just hasn’t proven to be true. CBS’s multi-camera roster, including “The Big Bang Theory,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “2 Broke Girls,” has shown that as far as ratings are concerned, the format is far from outdated.

With nothing to lose, NBC should embrace the rapidly changing television landscape. Ten years ago, the thought of cable series outperforming the Big Four networks was unimaginable — now, this occurs on a nightly basis. And viewing platforms have changed; along with broadcast, one can watch original series on cable, premium cable or on streaming services like Netflix. Broadcast’s reign is coming to a close and from the way it looks, NBC will be the first to fall. The Peacock needs to get in front of the curve while it can, or else, much like “Revolution,” the lights will go out.