An Obligatory “State of NBC” Post: Chuck, Jay and Trouble in Southland

nbc-logosmallAs I was getting back from vacation in New York City (there’s some photos of the trip on Flickr), a number of news pieces hit in regards to NBC, easily the most maligned network at the moment. Part of me almost pities the network, to be honest with you: going into this season, every critic was anxious to tear apart the Jay Leno experiment and almost looking for the network to fail. I don’t think this is entirely unfair, as they have ushered in an environment where television drama has become an endangered species on one of the networks, but I think that it meant that NBC was in the public eye in a way that makes this all seem that much more dramatic.

It was ultimately worse than critics could have imagined, and perhaps the worst case scenario for NBC. Jay is getting about the ratings he needs to be considered profitable but well below what he needs to be considered a “success” by any other metric, and the network has all but imploded around him. Outside of reality, which remains buoyed by The Biggest Loser, the network’s dramas (both new and old) are flatlining in a way that no one could have imagined. While Law & Order wasn’t expected to pop on Friday nights, no one expected its spinoff, Special Victims Unit, to implode on Wednesdays. While Heroes’ slide into the ratings basement has been on display for over a year, dragging Trauma into the grave is predictable but nonetheless tragic. Even the Thursday lineup, one that I genuinely love, feels in some way tainted as Parks and Recreation and Community struggle to find viewers. And, of course, to top it all off the network chose to cancel Southland before even airing its second season premiere.

It’s created a network that feels legitimately toxic, an environment that midseason shows like Chuck are going to be forced to wade into. So, when news broke of Chuck potentially being rushed in at the end of October, it seemed like a desperate move for the network to reverse the critical slide by re-introducing a show that we critical folk love. And, for all of my love for the series (I did just purchase a Jeffster t-shirt, after all), I have to say it: I don’t want it to come back this way.

No good can come of it.

In many ways the success of the Jay Leno Experiment is less about its ratings and more about the ratings of the rest of the network’s lineup. If Leno’s ratings are simply mediocre, but NBC’s lineup posts mild gains or remains stable, NBC wins: they’re spending less money, getting comparable performances, and in the process getting a chance to rebuild for the following year. Leno is designed to offer stability in an uncertain economic climate, first and foremost, but providing stability in an uncertain network climate is similarly important. That NBC’s new shows (with the exception of Community, which got solid ratings post-Office) are tanking (Mercy and Trauma both struggling on Mondays/Wednesdays) and that their returning shows are only dropping (Parks and Recreation and Heroes in particular performing below their critical acclaim/supposed popularity respectively) demonstrates that NBC’s strategy is a failure, Jay withstanding.

I’ve always referred to Leno as a stopgap solution, which is precisely NBC’s problem. As is reality in a Winter Olympics year, the network is somewhat biding its time until February hits: that’s why Chuck’s debut was originally scheduled for March and not the more traditional midseason January slot. Of course, now NBC sees Chuck as a contingency to rush to air sooner rather than later, replacing either Trauma or Mercy (likely the former) when they’re pulled from the air. It’s not entirely uncommon, as CBS rushed The Amazing Race to air a few seasons ago when Viva Laughlin tanked, but it’s dangerous: it means that you’re giving up on any attempt to “relaunch” in favour of applying band-aids.

The Southland cancellation was a weird twist of fate for NBC, coming at a bad time for the network. Faced with a Friday Night timeslot that was likely never going to serve the show either in terms of content (the network argues that the show is just too dark and serious for before 10pm, a timeslot now exclusive to quote-unquote comedy) or in terms of ratings. It’s not clear how long NBC has been mulling this decision, but picking up the show seemed strange to begin with: ratings weren’t particularly great during its short Spring season, and they knew the show was a serious drama and that they wouldn’t have the timeslots for it. For them to outright cancel it with six episodes produced is like waving the white flag, admitting that their brand doesn’t have the place for a serious cop drama.

Or, really, they’re admitting that they have no idea what their brand is. If Chuck returns to NBC right now, does this actually change anything we know about NBC? It might draw better ratings than Trauma (I’d certainly hope so), and perhaps returning in the midst of low expectations could turn the show into a legitimate success story. However, a year ago, NBC was a network with enough confidence in its original programming that Chuck was given a full-season order for the high quality of its first six episodes, and this year it’s a network cancelling a solid show when its first six episode failed to hit a moving target that I’m not even sure exists.

Yes, a year ago NBC was a network that greenlighted Kath & Kim without a pilot, so it’s not as if the Silverman/Zucker era was at some point unmarred by scandal. However, since that point, NBC has fallen further than I could have imagined, and I’m not convinced Chuck wants to be ushered in as yet another stopgap solution. Sure, March could be even worse: maybe Vancouver 2010 will be a disaster, and their efforts to relaunch in March (already marred by Spring series Day One getting bumped to mini-series) will fall even flatter than the fall. However, at least then we could find a network in transition as opposed to a network in disarray, an NBC that knows it has a problem and that is making moves to fix it.

If Chuck does return in the next month, I’ll be pleased on a basic level: I really like the show, and would love to see it make it to air as soon as possible so a full 22-episode season is more plausible. However, there is some part of me that feels as if there’s no escaping NBC’s downward trend: when SVU fell and fell hard, it was a sobering moment where you realize that only The Office and The Biggest Loser have been spared the carnage. I was at the NBC Store last week, and I saw a lot of properties that I truly believe in that this network has had some hand in. The problem is that they’re an island in a sea of failure, and I don’t want Chuck to be lost at sea – of course, if we wait until Winter, my guess is the ice will be pretty thin.

Cultural Observations

  • I’d tend to think Southland will find a home: it has John Wells behind it, has a solid cast that’s in place with contracts, and has six episodes in the can. Seems like a great fit for TNT, which has always been considered the logical home for Law & Order should it stray from the NBC Universal family at any point (never put anything past Dick Wolf).
  • In the current NBC climate, my guess is that we’ll see Heroes die in its current form but re-emerge as a vehicle for NBC to stay in the Zachary Quinto/Hayden Pannetiere business. I don’t think they care about much else at this point.
  • The one piece of good news NBC got this week was nailing down Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) to replace Maura Tierney (who bowed out for cancer treatments) in the one midseason replacement they had, Parenthood. I love Graham, and am glad to have her back on TV, but the show seems like an awkward fit for NBC right now so it will be interesting to see what they do with the show when the time comes to introduce it into the lineup.

2 Comments

Filed under NBC

2 responses to “An Obligatory “State of NBC” Post: Chuck, Jay and Trouble in Southland

  1. Simply stated, I do not watch the “Leno” Show and will not watch it in the future.

    What’s the point of that show anyway? Now, if he was on late night, I’d watch him, just as I watch Letterman, or The Daily Show, etc.

    It’d be good to see Chuck again. Heroes misfired with bad scripts and bad writers. I don’t know that it can be saved, apart from killing everyone (you know, back to the original idea!!!)

  2. I totally feel sorry for NBC. I can’t imagine what they should do, or what they should have done for the last 5 years.
    The Jay Leno thing is unfortunately logical. Jay couldn’t stay at the tonight show forever, if he did then Conan would probably leave the network and Jay would probably just retire at some inconvenient time (or get raises until NBC went under). So they let him leave, that allowed them to reboot their late night talk show hosts. There was nothing wrong with that, Conan is great (not as popular as David Letterman but no one expected that), and Jimmy Fallon is surprisingly good and great at attracting young people. So then people started asking what was going to happen to Jay. He wasn’t going to disappear. Probably ABC was going to get him; or maybe even FOX; or, god forbid, a cable network. Meanwhile NBC can’t afford to maintain their schedule. They’re putting out three hours of primetime six days a week and they’re in fourth place. They had to cut that back. They could have created 6 new reality shows…. or they could hire Jay Leno again. (personally I think reruns would have been the third option and my favorite, but no one would have supported that.) What should they have done? Let the local channels have the 10-11 timeslot?
    As for Chuck, I think this was the plan the entire time. Moving Chuck to March was a joke. There was no way that NBC was going to have a 100% success rate with it’s new shows. They knew they were going to cancel something, and they knew that Chuck was waiting in the wings. Perhaps that’s what they wanted Parenthood for, but obviously there have been some serious delays with that show.
    I can’t help but defend NBC, I just keep thinking that if I was in charge I don’t think I would do anything different. I’m not saying that they should be on top, but I don’t think that we really need to continue kicking them while they’re down. There are other networks with worse shows and worse track records that deserve our criticism more (FOX & CBS).

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