TV: Playing Catch Up: The Future of NBC

Written by Hunter Phillips on . Posted in TV

I doubt you remember Andy Richter Controls the Universe. Heck, I doubt anybody does. It was a fairly rote sitcom, unceremoniously cancelled in 2003 for its low ratings, which averaged around 8 million viewers a week. The show aired on FOX, then the fourth-place network in America. (This is a pre-American Idol world, mind you.)

In 2011, NBC’s biggest scripted hit is The Office, which averages, not kidding, 8 million viewers. The number of viewers FOX scoffed at eight years ago are now the champagne wishes of NBC executives, who hold on for dear life to any show with numbers above 4 million.

What happened to the Peacock, the network of Seinfeld, Friends and Cheers? Johnny Carson probably rolls in his grave while his beloved NBC is stuck in fourth place, only ahead of the CW (which, really, is barely a network anyway).

In NBC’s defense, there’s no denying that the TV landscape is markedly different than it was even at the conclusion of Friends in 2004. DVRs and web streaming have made appointment TV obsolete, and American Idol’s best days are still pulling in ratings that would be a disappointment for any top 20 show in the 1990s.

The threat of basic cable hasn’t helped. Even ten years ago, basic cable was a refuge for syndication and movies. Now, cable shows are outgunning the networks at just about every awards show. It’s a tough time to be a network, let alone the one in last place.

The recent merger with Comcast brought with it a regime change at NBC, and a new programming head in Bob Greenblatt, the former head of Showtime. Greenblatt took Showtime, then an HBO knockoff, and gave it Weeds, Dexter, Californication, and a laundry list of other Emmy-winning shows that dominate premium cable ratings. His sensibility for relevant and quirky TV seems to make him a solid match at NBC, but he has his work more than cut out for him.

The biggest problem for NBC is one that nobody considers — a problem that the network created for itself by staying ahead of the curve. The majority of NBC content is available on Hulu, and it consistently ranks a safe number one in DVR recordings. However, the Nielsen ratings don’t quite care yet about online and DVR ratings. It’s all in the first-run ratings, and with its more focused 18-49 audience, NBC looks to remain behind.

The opposition, CBS, has a perfect strategy — make the TV set the only place to view a show, that is, until the DVD is released. CBS doesn’t even release its episodes to iTunes, forcing anyone who watches How I Met Your Mother to watch it on Monday night, just like everyone else. NBC’s generosity in getting its viewers content might be indirectly causing its damnation.

So, what’s Greenblatt to do? Insiders are predicting him to clean house, giving way for more shows in the vein of his Showtime hits. He’ll likely nix Law and Order: LA and The Event. He’ll take joy in ending The Cape and Perfect Couples. And, if there is any mercy in this world, he will pull the trigger on the abomination that is Outsourced.

However, Greenblatt has stated that he has no interest in trashing what isn’t garbage, and he has said sees promise in Parks and Recreation, Community and Parenthood. It seems that Greenblatt is going to have it his way — adding more basic-cable-lite programming, as well as keeping the shows that make NBC still relevant. After all, he can’t built a network from The Biggest Loser alone.

It’s highly doubtful that NBC is going to usurp CBS for the No. 1 network in America anytime soon. It’s even unlikely that it’ll suddenly jump to a solid No. 2. However, the new regime has potential to shake things up in a good way. Bob Greenblatt’s strategy keeps comedies like 30 Rock and Community on the air, while revamping the dramas to fit the fare seen on basic cable, albeit with significantly less edge.

If he wants Emmys and Globes, Greenblatt can’t go wrong with his plan. But if he wants to become No. 1 — well, it might be time to dust off that laugh track.

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