Honestly, you can’t blame real writers for flocking to the topic. It’s a network worth saving, for one, and secondly, it’s pretty fun to discuss where exactly it all went wrong and possible paths out of the wilderness.
One of the best NBC zingers on 30 Rock was in last season’s “Mrs. Donaghy” episode, where Jack says one of the network’s strategies is to “make it 1997 again, through science or magic.” These were the days when Seinfeld was somehow pulling in 21 million people a week, when a George Clooney-powered ER was Godzillaing through the ratings.
But it isn’t 1997. It isn’t even 2007, which was the last year in which Hulu didn’t exist. Viewership is slipping at pretty much every network, even if NBC has borne the brunt of the assault. Thus, the first Piece of Advice That If You Don’t Follow, On Your Head Be It:
Accept that you’re basically a cable network.
The very type of shows you’re best known for, the shows we use to define your network, appeal to a demographic that no longer watches TV on Nielsen-approved devices. Advertisers are apparently as dumb as we’ve always thought, and are still content to use Nielsen numbers. What they don’t understand is how valuable it can be to know you’re reaching a very specific group of people. That’s what you have to do: Make advertisers understand the value of a smaller, far more focused audience. And if you can’t? Well…
It’s difficult to imagine a broadcast network moving away from the advertiser-supported model. And it’s doubtful we would ever actually see that happen. But there are other ways to monetize audiences.
A show like Community may only do a 1.7 (…or so) in the demo, but those people are probably the most passionate fans you’ll ever meet. They will do anything to keep that show in production, if not “on the air” in the most literal sense. We saw this phenomenon at work with Chuck and Subway. We’ve seen it without the middleman of an advertiser at all, in the case of Louis CK’s Great Online Distribution Experiment, or Arrested Development‘s recent return to active status. Those aren’t exact matches for this case, but it is encouraging to see what you can accomplish by tapping into the online community.
Maybe that’s the future for you: Make your low-rated shows available online or on-demand only. Strike a deal with Hulu or Netflix– your viewers will follow you. It can work. It’ll require some serious investment at first, especially given how awful your proprietary online player is. That’s where being owned by two of the largest corporations in America comes in handy. There will be failures. Your mindset still needs to change.
Like they showed us during the Dark Days of The Jay Leno Show, the affiliates probably won’t be too happy about this. They’ll need just as much convincing as advertisers, if not more. And don’t forget that the affiliates have to answer to viewers as well. Cultivate enough brand loyalty and viewers might even fight your battles for you.
Accepting that you’re a niche player doesn’t mean you have to stop trying to attract viewers. After all, even cable shows can find pretty sizable audiences (see: Walking Dead, The). But over the last few seasons it’s looked like you haven’t been trying. Did anyone really think The Cape was going to come roaring out of the gate? Or even blossom into something respectable?
Picking up shows like Smash is a good start. In a season of dramatic duds– even the relative successes, like CBS’ Person of Interest, are just fucking boring —Smash is the kind of show that people are going to watch on TV. (Theoretically. I’ve only seen the pilot, so who knows what the future holds.) It’s colorful and has great production values, which is something people like to see on a screen bigger than an iPad. And since Glee has become unwatchable, people might be willing to turn elsewhere for a weekly musical fix.
NBC is still a killer brand at its core. Fox is mostly flash and little substance; CBS is staid and broadly appealing, with the exception of The Good Wife; ABC is where you go for melodrama and solid, occasionally great, comedies. But NBC was the home of Good Television, before cable came along. We still remember and talk about Cheers and Seinfeld and The West Wing. And even now, you’re as much the Network of Second Chances as the Network That Was. Anywhere else on broadcast, Community wouldn’t have lasted more than half a season before being relegated to burn-off status.
So give shows like Awake a chance. Give it a good timeslot– Thursdays at 10, maybe, if you don’t want to go with a 3-hour comedy block –and give Kyle Killen more than two episodes to work his magic. Odds are the ratings won’t be great, but it’ll show everyone you’re serious about putting quality shows on the air.
And yeah, I know, the thing about quality shows, and especially dramas, is that they’re not cheap. Especially when you have to produce 22 episodes a year. So cut the standard full season for dramas down to 13 episodes. This not only divides the year neatly into quarters, it also reduces the risk of committing to a full season and having to unceremoniously eat some really expensive crow. You’ll be making it easier both for showrunners who like to tell highly serialized stories with little filler and those who prefer a more procedural method. Law & Order: UK‘s seasons are shorter than their Stateside counterparts’, to great effect. It’ll take a while to build up a good-sized drama stable, so that you have two or three good performers per quarter, but it’ll be worth the effort.
To aid in this effort, bring back The Miniseries. This format has been working in Britain for ages, and PBS is showing with Downton Abbey‘s stellar season two ratings that the time just might be right. Make these things event viewing.* No one’s holding Harry’s Law viewing parties. The upside is that if you find a show that really pops, you can order a second, possibly extended, season. Boom. Drama stable: expanded.
*Just don’t call it “Event Viewing,” because that might inadvertently remind people of The Event, and that would be counterproductive.
In the meantime, there’ll be a lot of programming holes to plug. Find some decent-quality reality shows. Work out a deal with your sister networks: Air a Top Chef special before the next season on Bravo, for some nice synergistic cross-promotion. Maybe show SyFy movies on dead Friday or Saturday nights, or reruns of USA shows. This is not the time to act like your siblings are beneath you. The results may not be earth-shattering, but these measures probably won’t hurt, and they might help with budgetary concerns.
Comedies are a different story, though they could also perhaps benefit from a season-shortening. You have the comedy thing on lockdown, Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea? aside. You have a great stable of talent to pull from, and that’s not going to change in the foreseeable future, not with Lorne Michaels still around. Keep cultivating stars like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. Even if you give them a little tether, like with Mindy Kaling, keeping the actual production in the family is a win for everyone. However:
Stop ordering shows from “name” comedians because they’re “name” comedians.* This goes back to the “It is not 1997” thing. You are not going to find another Seinfeld. It’s not going to happen. Especially not with… Dane Cook? Jesus, guys. That’s some CBS-like shit– except it won’t result in CBS-level ratings.
To impress upon you the seriousness of this point, let’s look at a couple of your failures over the last year: The Paul Reiser Show bombed. Whitney is fading fast, numbers-wise, aside from being critically reviled. Chelsea is in nearly the exact same situation. (The corollary to this: No more imports. Sure, The Office worked for a while, but do I need to remind you of Kath and Kim?)
*In fact, stop doing this with dramas, too. Learn from the failure of Undercovers and, more recently, Terra Nova on Fox. Trumpeting “Jaybrams!” or “Spielberg!” no longer signifies anything other than sound and vague disappointment, so maybe back off that marketing tactic for Smash.
You don’t need name recognition for a show to do well. People don’t watch 2 Broke Girls because Michael Patrick King is the showrunner or Beth Behrs is in it, they watch because it appeals to the lowest common denominator and doesn’t require the use of any brain cells. The Office wasn’t a hit because everyone at the time knew the British version or loved Steve Carell; it was something new and funny that people hadn’t really experienced before. 30 Rock got a boost from Tina Fey’s previous success on SNL, sure, but its success is due to more than just Fey’s presence. To go further afield, Louie works because Louis CK is an unparalleled talent, and his show defies all expectations of what a TV comedy should be.
In that vein:
Make yourself a network that creatives love to work with. You should be the go-to net for dynamite pitches from dynamite showrunners. John Landgraf has built FX into a powerhouse over the last several years, and yet it’s almost impossible to find someone to speak ill of him, because he gives his showrunners ample freedom and support. Even Terriers got to finish its entire season, despite ratings that made Community look like a juggernaut.
13-episode seasons for dramas should help begin to build this kind of reputation, and as we said above, you’re already known for being less quick on the draw than certain other networks. That’s not to say that you can afford to let sleeping turds lie, nor that you should. If a show is really, truly bad– Reiser, The Playboy Club –there’s no reason to shovel money onto the burning wreckage. But shows that are critically beloved deserve the benefit of the doubt. …For six episodes, at least. After that, you’ve done your duty.
And above all: Don’t give up, Bob. You can’t do any worse than Zucker. We’re all rooting for you.