Tag Archives: Parks and Recreation

In which I run NBC

Humpty NBC

Sad Peacock

NBC hasn’t been considered a network for a while now. Instead, it’s a problem; a textbook exercise for TV writers to pore over and attempt solve.

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.

Other people have said this, but it bears repeating. You even have a former head of a premium cable channel as your jefe now. This “really bad fall”? Is probably the new norm. And that’s okay.

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.

Be better.

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.

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Why the Golden Globe TV Nominations Actually Make Sense*

*Obviously there’s a giant asterisk for that headline. This is why the TV nods make sense given their source, rather than acknowledging they are valid in any way– the method to the HFPA’s madness, if you will.

No one really knows– or ever will know –who the HFPA members are, which is kind of fun. They’re the entertainment world’s equivalent of a middling college’s third-tier secret society: They throw a cool party, but god if they’re not the biggest bunch of clueless assholes you’ve ever met. And though you certainly don’t take them seriously, you do get very confused when confronted with their weird party-planning decisions and nevertheless feel the need to declaim very loudly that they are wrong and stupid.

So yes, initially the Golden Globe nominations confused the shit out of me, and I declaimed very loudly via the internet that this was all incredibly nonsensical. (I was also annoyed to see that once again Gary Oldman has been passed over, as though he’s painted his lintel with the blood of critics to stop the Angel of Awards Shows from coming for him, but that’s a whole ‘nother thing.) After some thought, though, it all actually began to make sense.

It's okay, Raylan. I still love you.

The first step to Understanding the HFPA comes from examining the enormous gulf between its TV choices and those of every other awards body, mostly the Emmys. Friday Night Lights, Justified, and Breaking Bad have all won at previous awards shows. On the comedy side, even Parks and Rec got some Emmy love in the form of nominations for Amy Poehler and the show itself. Clearly, these guys could not possibly care less about following in the Academy’s footsteps. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Emmys (and SAG, oof) make a lot of mistakes as well, so to have one group act as a repository for wildcards would be a nice little set-up, something to shake those predictable awards-season blues.

Wait, no, wrong wildcards, HFPA. Wrong wildcards! Oh, for the love of…

For step two, look at the disparity between any American critic‘s 2011 Top Ten list and the GG noms.

Right? May the howls of outrage never cease!

But then look at what most of those Top Ten shows are about:

FNL, Justified, and Parks are all about sort of down-on-their-luck small towns, where people are occasionally cartoonish, but generally behave as people do in real life. For Breaking Bad and Community, substitute “family” and “community college” for “town,” and it works just as well. There’s an emotional and physical reality to these shows that’s grounded in their settings: They’re about how your home isn’t just where your heart is– it is your heart. And that heart is pretty unambiguously American. Not in a patriotic, “America! Fuck yeah!” way– just in a cultural sense. Walter White is about as American as you can get– obsessed with climbing the economic ladder, regardless of the cost. Old-school lawmen like Raylan Givens are a uniquely Stateside phenomenon, and when you add in the peculiar subculture found in Appalachia, well, good luck selling that to an audience that only knows a few vague stereotypes about that area. And it’s not too hard to see why the minutiae of a high-school football coach’s life doesn’t grab the HFPA’s attention. You can argue that good TV is good TV, regardless of where it’s set– and I’d agree with you in most cases. Most intelligent people would. But see above re: clueless assholes.

The acting noms follow the same pattern, basically. Flashy roles are referred to as such for a reason: They attract a lot of attention. There’s little else the HFPA likes more than something shiny. Thus: Kyle Chandler being left out in the cold; Jessica Lange and Eric Stonestreet cocooned in HFPA’s warm, boozy embrace.

The HFPA also seem to have a severely advanced, possibly terminal case of Murphytis. That’s the only real explanation for both American Horror Story and Glee appearing on this list. I drop in on AHS occasionally, to make sure I’m not guilty of crime number two on this list, and there is no reason for this show to be rewarded for anything. It is doing nothing that another show is not doing or has already tried, mostly to better effect. The thing about Ryan Murphy’s shows, though, is that they’re so unabashedly batshit that, to people who either don’t get enough of that sort of thing or feel it should be the status quo, it all seems like a rollicking good time, despite being mostly artless and not making one iota of sense. Lucky for him, there’s no need for shit to make sense in HFPAland.

Don’t misunderstand me: These nominations are still stupid and wrong, for the most part. It just makes one feel a little better, being able to ascribe some sort of reasoning to the idiocy. Which is perhaps why I gave up on Glee last season.