NBC had a motto heading into this season: “first be best, then be first.” It was quite the slogan, don’t get me wrong, but it was also a flawed strategy considering they have only seen two dramas survive their development season and one of them is limping into the end zone instead of high-kicking their way into it. It was a year that was supposed to slow the network’s decline, and yet the shows that were struggling last season just kept struggling. NBC is still sitting in the basement among the big four networks, and they need a good development season quickly. While Heroes has certainly been a big success for the network, there’s also very little question that it isn’t enough: they need something big, and they need it soon. They can be best all they want, but if people aren’t watching NBC is only going to fall further. And, based on their pilot selections…well, the jury remains out on whether NBC is capable of rising to the occasion.
2006/2007 Pilot Season
NBC did not have a terrible pilot season, really, but it suffered from a black hole of a timeslot, the serial drama crash of ’06, and found a single bright light ratings-wise in the entire field.
That single bright light was Heroes, the biggest new show of the year amongst younger viewers. This show burst onto the screen, built steadily, and even in its recent decline has performed extremely well against tough competition in 24. It will likely get ratings attention, and chances are that the network will be touting it as its big success this year. However, the show has a single major problem which has led to other shows falling by the wayside. Much like Lost, Heroes is incapable of providing a lead-in for the following show. The result: the black hole at Mondays at 10pm.
That black hole of a timeslot has claimed the lives of three different shows, each less successful than the one before it. Mondays at 10 is a tough timeslot, don’t get me wrong, due to CSI: Miami. However, it should not have claimed as many shows as it did, especially with Heroes as its lead-in. The first casualty, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was moved to the spot after ABC decided to play Grey’s there and CSI/Grey’s was too much for the Aaron Sorkin drama to resist. Still, though, Mondays at 10 claimed the show after viewer impatience and subsequent decline found the show shelved for February sweeps. The show was a huge bomb for the network because it was star-studded, expensive, high-profile show that should have been a return to glory…and yet became a failure set to run out its episodes in the post-sweeps period starting on May 24th.
The second occuptant, the Black Donnellys, was in the same boat. The Paul Haggis-created drama was highly touted by NBC as a quality show, but was done in by a combination of the serial curse and the fact that it was wildly incapable with its Heroes lead-in. It was a gritty crime drama, and Heroes succeeds so well because it is somewhat escapist. The Black Donnellys had a decent pilot, sure, but as a series it never found its niche within NBC’s lineup, and for better or for worse CSI: Miami is more accessible. The result was yet another drama falling by the wayside. And, surprisingly, even reality fare couldn’t keep the slot alive, as The Real Wedding Crashers recently bombed in the time period.
However, you don’t need to be in the black hole to fail on NBC’s schedule. Comedies 20 Good Years and Andy Barker: P.I. suffered similar fates, although in very different ways. 20 Good Years was pulled after three episodes for abysmal ratings, while Andy Barker was only given 6 episodes and saw not enough success to justify an Office Season Two style renewal.
The network’s other comedy pilot, 30 Rock, found a home for itself on Thursday’s Comedy Night Done Right, and has been renewed despite low ratings. This is likely because of the critical success the series has found in its star Alec Baldwin, and also the fact that Tina Fey is a network creation and therefore NBC feels like the show is directly linked to their development process. Still, its low ratings make it a concern moving forward, and the network didn’t create a bona fide comedy hit this year.
The network also tried to debut two new dramas on Wednesday, and found that the night just wasn’t working for them. Kidnapped was one of the first casualties of the Serial Drama Crash, as its long-term plot and intricate twists weren’t interesting enough for viewers to keep around. 24 and Prison Break are successful with it because they have guns, explosions and the kind of stuff which is just cool. Kidnapped was the epitome of intellectual drama, and the reality was that viewers just weren’t interested.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, Friday Night Lights was just…basically, as I’ll discuss when I start reviewing the season, Friday Night Lights is an intricate blend of teen drama, sports drama, and just life drama, all melded into one cohesive unit. It’s a great family show, and should have been successful…but it never found its audience. NBC is giving it another chance, and there’s still a chance it could emerge in better shape, but it needs to improve greatly.
On the whole, the network just didn’t have the real breakout season they needed, and saw their pilots (Including the late entry Raines which ran out its order with no fanfare). They got one show, whose success they plan to take advantage of, and grabbed a drama and a comedy which they hope to build into legacy shows if they foster them correctly. Whether 30 Rock and Friday Night Lights can become the next The Office and ER, however, only time will tell.
The Returning Shows
And yet, despite a rather mediocre pilot season, NBC has a much larger problem on its hand: the underperformance of almost all of its existing programming. Across the board NBC has seen extreme declines in performance, and the problem has only gotten worse as the season has gone on. The network is faced with an extreme challenge this year, and the new pilots will have a lot of slack to pick up.
The biggest problem is that their programming has reached an aging period where shows are beginning to lose the attention of viewers all at the same time. Crossing Jordan, The Apprentice and ER have all suffered from the same fate this year: their stories are becoming stale, their gimmicks are becoming old, and their time has come to an end. The unfortunate thing is that NBC can’t just drop all three of these shows from its schedule, because that’s far too many open timeslots to risk losing. As a result, chances are that ER will be getting a final season despite some recent abysmal numbers in the wake of the extended Grey’s Anatomy episode, and The Apprentice is likely to film one last season in case they need a midseason replacement. Crossing Jordan, however, has solved its last case (Which medical examiners shouldn’t be doing anyways, but I’ll forgive them).
Medium, however, was the victim of a rather unfortunate series of scheduling shifts which placed it on Wednesdays at 10, and its continued static ratings performance has allowed it to gain a renewal despite its tepid performance recently.
The network has also, however, seen a noted decline in the ratings performance of the Law & Order dynasty. I’ve written a lot about this, but the general sentiment is that the Mothership is falling fast, while Criminal Intent and SVU each suffered large declines (Criminal Intent is the lowest rated, however). Suddenly, the powerful franchise that kept the network afloat is no longer powerful, and it’s a problem that is only going to get worse.
However, NBC announced on Sunday (Variety) that they have a solution: the mothership and SVU will stay on NBC, while first run episodes of Criminal Intent will air on USA Network and be rerun on NBC where needed (Saturday Nights, repeat slots, etc.). The success of this move is yet to be seen, but it is certainly a possible solution to their growing problem.
Amongst comedies, the network saw continued success from The Office [Which will be extending its episode order to 24 episodes, six of which will be hour long episodes that will take the place of Scrubs when it switches off] and My Name is Earl, but Scrubs returned to a rather weak set of ratings but has nonetheless been renewed for a seventh season (Its 18 episodes could end up at midseason, but reports from Variety have it slotting into the fall schedule). Still, the network is searching for a complete comedy lineup and still has need for comedies which reach the ratings level of its returning ones.
Of course, as much as NBC has struggled with certain aspects of its lineup, it has its own Millionaire issue much like ABC: Three hours of Deal or No Deal per week is more than overkill, and this needs to be pared back. Yes, the show is capable of sustaining it, but it really needs to be dialed back. The network was unable to turn Identity into a hit, and 1 vs. 100 was only a mild success for the network. Their plan, earlier this season, had been to air entirely reality and game show programming at the 8pm hour. However, they found no success with these endeavours outside of Deal or No Deal, so that plan might have to be put on hold for now.
So, really, NBC has a lineup that’s slowly disintegrating, and becoming more and more reliant on reality programming that isn’t performing well either. The network has no growth series, and is suffering from a dying legacy.
The 2007/2008 Pilots
Therefore, NBC needs to try to create new legacies this pilot season, and they’ve put together a lineup that could, theoretically, start that process rolling. They’ve got an opportunity to make something out of Heroes’ success, and perhaps it could be found within their set of new dramas and comedies.
Perhaps most important is ensuring that the Heroes audience sticks around in the Black Hole on Monday nights, and The Bionic Woman might be the show to do it. The series, dealing with, well, a bionic woman, is apparently garnering strong reviews and could be a decent companion for Heroes on Monday nights. The network is already looking at a Sci-Fi audience, and spinning that off into a new show is in their best interest. The show will be a test of the true success of Heroes, and whether it will turn into a concept which viewers will follow to a new hour of primetime. For better or for worse, this drama is the opportunity for them to profit off of Heroes’ success.
Meanwhile, NBC is also housing another one of Josh Schwartz’s projects. While Gossip Girl takes flight at The CW, I’m personally more interested in Chuck, a show about a computer geek who becomes an unlikely hero at night. Why am I looking forward to this more, you ask? Well, Stephanie Savage is likely to be running Gossip Girl fulltime (She was an active producer on The O.C.), and I think that Schwartz’s best characters are male ones (Seth, in particular, before he got all whiny). As a result, I think that a male-centered show, and one with a much less teen soap setting, is by far the best showcase of his creative talents. It basically seems like it’s a series based on a young Marshall (Kevin Weisman) from Alias, which sounds to be like a fantastic concept with the writing power of Schwartz behind it.
An interesting thing has occurred, really, when it comes to the Sex & the City spinoff. On ABC, there’s the Cashmere Mafia being produced by that show’s executive producer Darrin Star. Meanwhile, NBC has Lipstick Jungle, which is exactly the same show (High-powered women fight it out in the male-dominated world of Manhattan) but is instead based on another novel by Sex & the City creator Candace Bushnell. Which show will be more successful? Well, I don’t really know for sure, but I’d say that NBC is lacking a similarly skewing soap audience, and therefore Lipstick Jungle is unlikely to make a big spash even with its star, Brooke Shields, returning to television. Still, it’s something to look out for should NBC try to make a run at it.
Proving that high-concept dramas appear to be back in style, Journeyman is yet another show with a male protagonist who has some sort of strange power that complicates his life. In this case, he is capable of traveling back in time to fix the lives of others, but also his own life at the same time. It’s odd that we’re just now returning back to Quantum Leap and Sliders, in our own new and creative fashion, but it can’t be the worst trend in the world, especially not compared to some of the other ones present.
Meanwhile, NBC can’t let a good cop show go; even with past failures including Third Watch and Boomtown, the network still wants to return to gritty streets where crime runs rampant. In this case, Life is about an ex-cop who was wrongly imprisoned, and returns back to the force after he is released. It sounds like your normal cop show, doesn’t it? Yeah well, it is; emotionally damaged policemen can only be so shocking, and the show doesn’t have a high-profile cast going for it or anything. Still, people do love their cop shows.
On the comedy side, the network doesn’t need too much help. However, they are still ordering pilots to either set up another hour of comedy or save for midseason should one of their other options falter. They have a strong Thursday comedy block which could be used to launch a new show, and I think that they have a couple of potential options within their pilot pickups.
The network has only officially picked up only a single comedy for next season, and it is apparently being saved for midseason. The I.T. Crowd is a British adaptation about, surprisingly enough, I.T. Workers. The show, clearly, would be used as a companion for The Office, and could latch onto that show for a successful midseason run should 30 Rock fall off. It seems like a decent concept, and it’s something that could catch on with Comedy Night Done Right should they need a fill-in.
However, I believe that NBC will be picking up one more comedy to debut in September while Scrubs takes a breather [Edit: Well, actually, no. Sources tell Variety that Scrubs will be slotting in at the beginning of the season, which means that they’re not going to give the show a shot]. That comedy could be anything, but my personal inclination is towards The Mastersons of Manhattan, which stars Natasha Richardson, Molly Shannon and Amanda Walsh (Former MuchMusic VJ) and deals with the posh life of two manhattan socialite sisters. I figure that this would be a decent fit for 30 Rock in terms of both featuring former SNL alumni and feature the city of New York. However, the only problem is that…well, it doesn’t sound very funny, and I don’t really know whether it would be a good fit for the off-the-wall 30 Rock. Still, I figure it wouldn’t be awful to give it a try and see if it works out this fall.
The Bottom Line
NBC is in a really rough spot; as I will likely be discussing at season’s end, I personally found a lot to like about their schedule. Friday Night Lights is perhaps my favourite new drama of the year, Heroes is without a doubt an enjoyable TV experience, and 30 Rock is a great addition to the existing genius of The Office. I found myself blogging a lot about NBC this year, and much of it was good…and yet much of it was bad.
That’s what NBC needs to worry about for next season. They can develop strong shows all they want, they can “first be best, then be first”, but they’re never going to get there if they keep having high-profile shows falling by the way side. The network needs to avoid the bad press more than it needs to avoid the bad shows, because other networks have managed much better even with some crap on their schedule. NBC’s pilots are nothing overly fascinating, but at the very least they give the network another chance. With the right marketing, the right scheduling, people will stop looking at NBC like the 4th place stepchild and perhaps begin looking like a network that could go somewhere.
8pm – Deal or No Deal
9pm – Heroes
10pm – The Bionic Woman
8pm – Reality Programming
9pm – Life
10pm – Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
8pm – Reality Programming
9pm – Chuck
10pm – Ummm…something else.
8pm – My Name is Earl
8:30pm – 30 Rock
9pm – The Office
9:30pm – Scrubs
10pm – ER
8pm – 1 vs. 100
9pm – Friday Night Lights
10pm – Journeyman
8pm – To Be Determined
9pm – Law & Order
10pm – Medium
Note: Okay, I literally ran out of pilots at a certain point, so I figure that I should keep with their reality tradition at the 8pm hour as much as possible. The result was STILL an open slot on Sundays, which could be filled with one last run of The Apprentice…but I refuse to actually schedule it in myself out of principle. The rest of the reality hours can be filled with new programs or, if they insist, Deal or No Deal. But, still, I hope that they develop some new shows to fill those slots.
So, it’s now up to NBC to pull things together, and in less than 24 hours we’ll be finding out; tomorrow, NBC is the first network to present. We think we know most of their pickups, but how will they schedule them? And what will be the fate of their bubble shows like Crossing Jordan? We’ll find out our final verdict then, and also see whether NBC is forced to change their scheduling based on what the other networks do throughout the week.