By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily TV/New Media Columnist
Published November 19, 2012
The signs were all there. The unceremonious expulsion of Ann Curry from “The Today Show," the fault-ridden coverage of the 2012 London Summer Olympics, the downright disrespectful handling of Conan O’Brien’s ousting, the renewal of “Whitney.” Yes, NBC has set itself on a course of self-destruction. The peacock has lost its damn mind.
It’s not easy for me to admit this. After all, NBC has played a formative role in my collegiate life. Freshman year, my roommate and I welcomed our new friends into our cluttered dorm room on Thursday nights for NBC’s beloved comedy lineup and again on most Saturdays for “Saturday Night Live.” The people who came to these gatherings, who plopped on our beds with their Oreos and popcorn, who laughed with us at every Liz Lemon “blergh” and Ron Swanson glare, are the same people I now live with. I’m not saying NBC is the reason I have friends … but yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
The disjointed handling of “Community” is particularly bizarre. Outcry from frustrated fans on Twitter has been heartfelt, but hardly informative, so here’s the rundown: NBC announced this summer that the show would move from its Thursday position to Friday night — or, as it’s otherwise known, Where TV Goes To Die — and would receive only a half-season order. The network also fired the brain of the series, Dan Harmon, and replaced him with the talented-but-safer David Guarascio and Moses Port. At the last minute, NBC decided to delay the fall premiere date to Feb. 7. The only good news that comes of this wait time is “Community” will at least reside where it belongs: in prime realty on Thursday nights.
The folks at NBC seem to have no idea what they’re doing this year, but the current “Community” saga is actually history repeating itself. Let’s take it all the way back to 1966, when a brand new, obscure sci-fi series entered NBC programming: “Star Trek.” The show was almost canceled after its second season, but overwhelming reaction from fans — and this was before Twitter made it easy to rally behind the things we love — convinced NBC to renew it for a third season, under the stipulation that it would move to Friday nights, simply a way of prolonging death. In this case, the show’s enterprising Gene Roddenberry wasn’t sacked, but rather quit to protest the schedule change. The new showrunner lacked the innovation of Roddenberry’s voice and the season straggled before its inevitable cancellation.
“Community” ’s future looks similarly unpromising, and it appears NBC learned nothing of its “Star Trek” mistakes. Roddenberry took his vision to rival CBS and built one of the most recognizable sci-fi franchises there is. Could Harmon build a comedy empire elsewhere when “Community” gets the boot? I certainly don’t see why not.
Some of television’s darkest moments come from decisions made in the back rooms of the GE Building. Every television critic alive laments the fall of “Freaks and Geeks,” but the true crime is not only that the show was canceled, but that NBC didn’t even let it complete its first season. And let’s not even talk about them throwing “Friday Night Lights” away — the worst offense came earlier, when network heads placed pressure on the writers to shake things up, resulting in the show’s worst arc and only real blemish (Landry, in the parking lot, with the lead pipe).
Yet, the poor decisions keep pouring in. Few are more nonsensical than NBC’s most recent news regarding programming changes: Last month, the network ordered five additional episodes of its ratings-suffering sitcom “Up All Night,” announcing that the show will also be switching from a single-cam format to multi-cam … laugh track and live studio audience included.
Huh? A switch to multi-cam in the middle of a season has no real precedent (“Happy Days” made the switch between seasons), and how exactly is this supposed to save the show? According to NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, the reasoning is “to infuse the show with more energy.” But live audiences and laugh tracks do just the opposite, providing a faux sense of energy even when the jokes don’t land. There’s a reason single-cam dominates the sitcom landscape these days. With the exception of “How I Met Your Mother,” multi-cam just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s a dying industry and is more likely to be “Up All Night” ’s downfall than its savior.
Unfortunately, most of these decisions have been made at many different levels in the NBC Universal empire, so while it would be nice to be able to pin the blame on Greenblatt, it’d be both ineffective and at least partially unfair. And as we learned this summer, NBC doesn’t take too kindly to constructive criticism — execs are still trying to defend their decision to not show the portion of the Olympic Opening Ceremony remembering the London terrorist attacks.
The only real power we have over NBC is to, well, watch their competition. After all, these days, ABC is outperforming NBC on several fronts. The network isn’t without its own bad decisions (ahem, its lack of faith in “Cougar Town”), but ABC put forth my favorite new drama last fall (“Revenge”) and my favorite new drama this fall (“Nashville”), while “Parenthood” is literally the only drama NBC has had going for it in the past few years. And ABC’s excellent comedy menu — which is spread across two days instead of lumped into one power bloc — is incredibly underrated. Maybe it is time to admit there is a new comedy king in network television.
What’s going on, NBC? I never thought I’d be one to hold ABC — home to “Body of Proof” for Christ’s sake — above you. Sure, you’re no CBS, but do we really want to set the bar that low? Perhaps an all-out regime change is the only way we’re going to see any progress.
The time has never been more right for an Occupy 30 Rockefeller movement.