Thursday, March 30, 2006

Super TV preview: NBC

So here we are. The end of the line.

That said, NBC is a hard network to call. It SEEMS like they should be easy to predict, but they've always had a rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic sort of mentality, preferring to keep nights that weren't really working together and hope for magic. They made a smart move in reestablishing themselves as the comedy go-to people on Thursdays (and I think that will really pay off when CBS and Fox beat each other to death). But their fall schedule last year was one of the worst I've seen. It had My Name Is Earl, to be sure, but it did too little to save a network that still sort of believes it's number one, as opposed to number four.

NBC, of course, dominated the 90s, but once Jeff Zucker came on board, it slowly deflated as he tried to wring every last bit of cash out of existing hits without developing any NEW hits. Quality shows like Newsradio and Scrubs were left to languish on nights where they weren't working instead of being built into bigger hits on Thursday nights (though by the time Scrubs came around, it was probably too late to save NBC).

Is it fair to blame Zucker completely for the network's failures? Not really. But it also sort of is. He came up with the idea to extend the run of Friends at least two seasons too long. He also greenlit a lot of atrocious sitcoms at a time when NBC had the best sitcom development people in the business. And he broke up the fabled Thursday night comedy lineup in favor of overexposing The Apprentice. Under his watch, the network also let football slip away in favor of securing the Olympics through the next few decades. To be fair, the Olympics are often a draw, but football can often precede a network's rise or fall (except for ABC, which has never had a deal outside of the Monday night game). CBS fell when it ditched football in the 90s, then rose again when football came back. Fox's real rise really began when it landed the NFC games. Football delivers you an incredibly large captive audience that can be funneled over to other nights of the week.

NBC is also fond of overexposure. See: The Apprentice. Now that it has a solid hit in Deal or No Deal, it's proceeding to play it on as many nights as possible, just inviting the audience to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" it.

But NBC is also so far down that it can take some real chances. ABC was in a similar position in 2001, and it planted the seeds that led to its 2004 breakthrough with Alias and a handful of other shows. NBC has a number of great projects in development, and it has already picked up three truly promising shows: Studio 7 on the Sunset Strip, the new show from The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin; Kidnapped, a 24-style thriller with a killer cast; and The Black Donnellys, from Crash's Paul Haggis (who, before he made crappy movies, created the stunning TV series EZ Streets). It's also got Heroes, which could end up being its Alias: a critically acclaimed hit in a milieu not often seen on TV that draws in young people and families.

And it has football back.

So let's see what NBC will most likely do.

First, look at NBC's truly awful fall 2005 schedule. Then, look at the pilots for next year.


With football:
7 p.m. EST/PST: Football Night in America (new series)
8 p.m.: Sunday Night Football (new series)

Without football:
7 p.m. EST/PST: Friday Night Lights
8 p.m.: Heroes (new series)
9 p.m.: Law & Order: Criminal Intent
10 p.m.: Crossing Jordan

Putting football on Sundays was a smart move for the NFL. The Desperate Housewives crowd isn't going to gravitate to it, and The Sopranos won't be on for the duration of the season. I don't think primetime football can ever be as huge as Monday Night Football was in its heyday, but this is a good idea. Another good idea is putting Friday Night Lights on after the season. It's a show about high school football, and it should be a good transition. To be fair, it could be not appropriate for that hour, but I don't think that will dissuade NBC from placing it there (they could also flip it with Heroes). Heroes, about superheroes, would be a natural choice for a 22-episode run straight through (like 24), and should be a solid player with families. L&O: CI and Jordan are both on the bubble, but they do well enough to warrant one last season on both counts.


8 p.m.: Deal or No Deal
9 p.m.: The Apprentice
10 p.m.: Medium

The Apprentice is long in the tooth. Medium is being dragged down by The Apprentice. And NBC is going to overexpose Deal or No Deal. But this is the only night that remotely works for them right now, so it's going to stay intact until it collapses (probably sometime around February). Even if ABC moves Grey's Anatomy there.


8 p.m.: Dateline NBC (new night, time slot)
9 p.m.: The Black Donnellys (new series)
10 p.m. Law and Order: SVU

I actually toyed with canceling Dateline, but that series will never die. So it ends up here, on a night when NBC treads a little more water. Donnellys will probably prove to be too dark and/or complex for network TV, but that should lead nicely into SVU, which likes to get its kink on. At least the network isn't just giving up with this schedule.


8 p.m.: Deal or No Deal
9 p.m.: Law and Order
10 p.m.: Kidnapped (new series)

There's Deal or No Deal again! Law and Order is drowning opposite Lost and Idol, but it makes so much money in cable reruns that I doubt NBC cares anymore. It, too, has been overexposed, but it still has a solid fanbase, so it's probably okay for another few years. NBC is intent on putting a serialized series at 10 to capture Lost fans. Kidnapped could just be that show. Look for NBC to debut it in late August to capitalize on serial fans needing a fix.


8 p.m.: The Office (new time slot)
8:30 p.m.: Scrubs (new night, time slot)
9 p.m.: My Name Is Earl
9:30 p.m.: Andy Barker, P.I. (new series)
10 p.m.: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (new series)

Here's a night where NBC will take some risks. Will & Grace, the last vestige of NBC's 90s dominance (well, besides ER) is leaving the air this year. Four Kings and Joey both flopped. But The Office is slowly turning into a show with a lot of buzz. Like Friends back in the early 90s, I think NBC will try to turn it into a hit on its own in the 8 p.m. slot. Scrubs is probably good for one more season, and it would work well on a night of single-camera shows. Earl is holding its own at 9. Andy Barker, P.I. is a show about an accountant who assumes the role of a P.I. from Conan O'Brian's production company (starring Andy Richter). And Sorkin's Studio show should be a good fit with a night of comedy.


8 p.m.: Deal or No Deal
9 p.m.: Las Vegas
10 p.m.: ER (new night)

Deal or No Deal is doing fine for itself here. Las Vegas has also made inroads on a tough night to program. And ER is contractually obligated to come back but fading fast. Its final season will quietly play out here before going to cable reruns forever.

The biggest thing about this schedule is that NBC gets to look stable, which is something it has long pursued. At some point, it's going to have to go crazy and cancel a bunch of stuff, but I think it's more likely to do that at midseason.

Here are some other shows I could see being picked up (NBC's development is really strong this year, second only to ABC's). Notice how many are comedies.

100 Things to Do Before I Die
20 Good Years
Alpha Mom
Community Service
Lipstick Jungle
Untitled Tina Fey Project

That's it for the super TV preview. I may try to do a wrap-up, but I don't know what I would say.


Greg! said...

Good read!

I'm really surprised that NBC actually does look like it has a somewhat solid lineup. That Thursday night lineup would especially have potential I would think.

And what is this Untitled Tina Fey Project?

Daniel said...

I love that you've done these. They're GREAT READS.

Ever get around to finding that Sorkin script, btw?

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Greg, the Tina Fey project ALSO takes place behind the scenes of an SNL-style show. I think it will likely pop up as a midseason replacement.

Dan'l, I've left my thoughts on the script around some of my usual haunts. But I may type up a post on it. I'm not supposed to *have* it, so that makes things odd.

And thanks for the kind thoughts!