NBC is in terrible shape. Once the home of such brand-defining comedies as Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, and Cheers, it was a first-place network that created the oft-repeated catchphrase “Must See TV.”
It seems like a lifetime ago.
Despite executives' huge promises of investments in scripted programming and renewed creativity, NBC's fall programming has been DOA. The network might be able to brag about Sunday Night Football, but it can't rely on the sports franchise all year for ratings. Its biggest scripted hit is Law & Order: SVU, which, in its twelfth season, is currently averaging just 9.2 million viewers. It's all downhill from there, with beloved 30 Rock—despite being named the best comedy on TV of the last decade by Newsweek—only bringing in an average of 5.7 million viewers so far this season. The Apprentice scored an insanely low 3.5 million viewers recently. NBC hasn't had a breakout hit since the days of Heroes, which the network ran into the ground until it was finally put out of its misery last season.
It's in keeping with just how dire the situation is at NBC that the network last week picked up full seasons of the serialized thriller The Event (which has lost more than 5 million viewers since it launched), along with Law & Order: Los Angeles (a.k.a. LOLA), critically reviled comedy Outsourced, and Jerry Bruckheimer's struggling procedural Chase (which has sunk to 5.2 million viewers). The jury is out on J.J. Abrams' glossy spy show, Undercovers, the pilot of which alone cost $10 million.
Quality shows these aren't. Despite the pedigree of Undercovers, the action-comedy teeters on tedium, the married spies at the heart of the story saddled with a catering cover story that is absurd. LOLA is underperforming (though last week saw a bump), despite having Law & Order: SVU as a lead-in. Chase is as standard a procedural as they come, and Outsourced has dodged accusations of being racist from day one. Was this really the best that NBC had to offer?
NBC is meant to be in recovery mode after last year's Conan O'Brien-Jay Leno fiasco, and Jeff Zucker is on his way out amid the NBC Universal-Comcast merger. And there is a lot that the network can do to get out of last place if it can put aside diminished self-expectations and remember the legacy of risk-taking and creative achievement that once made them the network to beat.
Here are six suggestions on how NBC can save itself:
1. Since you already have low ratings, just embrace it and go really niche (and affluent).
NBC tried to make some noise with The Event but viewers haven't taken to its Lost-meets-24 ethos, fleeing the show in droves. Ditch the generic development of tired procedurals and Lost wannabes and do something different. Given that NBC seems to be content with the low numbers it's garnering, it ought to build on affluent viewers, as it did in the late 1990s. Rather than offer remakes or retreads, it should attempt to go after quality and bring HBO or AMC-level programming to the broadcast networks. Go niche rather than broad with your dramas and comedies and deliver advertisers a concentration of educated, wealthy viewers who want to buy high-end merchandise.
2. Promote the innovative shows you already have.
NBC has some superlative shows, like Community, Parks and Recreation, Chuck, and Friday Night Lights. But none receive the on-air support, marketing, or widespread promotion that they deserve. Amy Poehler's Parks and Recreation—one of NBC's few critical breakouts of the last few years—isn't even on the air right now; it's been relegated to midseason, while Outsourced scored the plum post- Office slot.
Shows don't broaden beyond their bases by word of mouth. On-air, online, and alternative outreach goes a long way toward getting people to tune in and sample. It takes more than just tweeting your nightly lineup. Release your DVDs early and make a push for widespread promotion, so people catch up rather than walk by the following season.
3. Find a reality hit that isn't The Biggest Loser.
Unlike CBS, Fox, and ABC, NBC lacks a buzzy tentpole reality franchise. Before you say it, yes, it has The Biggest Loser, but that's more of an inspirational show than a behemoth along the lines of Dancing With the Stars, Survivor, The Bachelor, or American Idol. And on any other network, The Biggest Loser's ratings would merely be passable.
A new strategy is clearly in order for unscripted. The planned Survivor and The Bachelor mash-up, the tentatively titled Love in the Wild, might be a smart move, as the network is in need of some headline-grabbing attention.
Additionally, NBC should be leveraging its news magazine Dateline and spinning off some limited runs about specific topics, like ABC has done with Primetime. Not only does it deliver a concentrated burst, but it also allows the network to plug any holes with one-off specials and short-run programming that can fill gaps for a few weeks.
NBC should counter-program whenever possible. Despite the creative spark of NBC's comedies, they're now being killed on Thursdays— Community, for example, is crushed weekly by CBS' Big Bang Theory. Why the kamikaze mission? Switch the comedy block with Tuesday's two-hour-long Biggest Loser, where the weight-loss competition would be the only unscripted programming on offer on Thursdays.
Would it mean giving up its comedy legacy on Thursdays, once the home to Friends and Seinfeld? You bet, but it would also allow them to offer an alternative to dramas and American Idol in January. It's worth noting that NBC's highest-rated comedy, The Office, originally aired on Tuesdays way back when and, at the height of the Must See TV craze, NBC had two comedy blocks: one on Tuesday and one on Thursday.
Look to rearrange the comedy lineup. Return Parks and Recreation sooner rather than later and give it the same opportunity to grow that turned The Office into a hit. Shift Community behind 30 Rock to give it some additional protection.
5. Program themed nights.
If NBC is looking for a diversity of programming rather than specificity, it should consider creating genre-specific programming blocks across the week. Monday nights, which has been tanking since the season began, might perform better if the shows were more compatible with each other. Chuck, Undercovers, and, say, The Cape (a comic book-influenced vigilante drama set for midseason), all wish-fulfillment/superhero/super-spy dramas, would make more sense together than an action-comedy, a thriller, and a procedural. Make one night solely devoted to reality programming, another for quirky comedy, a third for grittier dramas, etc.
While we're at it, move Law & Order: SVU back to Wednesdays at 10 p.m. again, pronto.
6. Figure out the brand.
NBC needs to start thinking like a first-place network again and, instead of following the pack, look to lead it. The first step is to formalize something resembling a brand. CBS has crime procedurals ( CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds); Fox is bombastic ( House, Bones, Glee); ABC has soapy dramas ( Grey's Anatomy) and family entertainment ( Dancing With the Stars, Modern Family). NBC is the odd one out, looking like a patchwork quilt.
NBC should be looking to find a common thread that links its programming in a way similar to successful cable networks. Its current motto, "More colorful," means nothing. If its corporate sibling USA can manage to find a common thread between its WWE weekly program and a stylish crime drama like White Collar to create marketing that makes sense, then NBC can find a link between NFL Sunday football and Emmy-winning, little-watched 30 Rock.
But, really, the network has to do something to get itself out of the pit it's been in lately.
Ultimately, NBC has to stop admiring the reflection of its legacy and focus on a hard truth: it's quickly becoming a superfluous broadcast network whose programming is largely failing to match up with its sister cable networks like USA and Bravo. NBC: Ditch the sad complacency already, and do something drastic.
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.