Why is NBC doing so poorly?
February 19, 2012 at 11:27 pm #23885
Over the past few years, basically since Friends and Frasier ended, NBC has been doing very badly in the ratings, consistently coming in 4th among the major broadcast networks. This season has seen high profile flops like The Playboy Club, Free Agents, Prime Suspect, and maybe The Firm. And yet, almost all the broadcast network shows I watch are on NBC: 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Community (oh hiatus, but still). Smash looks promising; I just watched the Awake pilot (preview here: http://www.hulu.com/watch/330135/awake-special-full-episode-preview), and if it maintains that level of quality, I think it’ll be amazing.
NBC seems to be doing as well critically, if not better, than any other broadcast network. Why haven’t they been able to find the same popular support?February 20, 2012 at 12:00 am #23891
This question is ripe for overthinking, or at the very least, this is a topic I have a lot of theories on that I’d like to discuss.
Theory 1: doing “poorly” is a relative term. While you pinpoint the demise of Friends and Fraiser as a turning point in when NBC started going downhill, their status as a bit of a loser network didn’t solidify, in my mind, until the whole Leno/Conan debacle. While NBC wasn’t exactly leading the ratings before then, it’s pretty standard for there to be fluctuations in which networks lead and which don’t.
When Leno flopped in the 10 PM spot, it wasn’t just a PR debacle, it also left NBC with a lot of holes in their programming. As opposed to just one show getting cancelled and leaving them with one hour open, they had an hour every week night, plus whatever other shows ended that year. They had to scramble to fill their schedule, which meant many shows that were under-performing and that might have been cancelled on another network were kept on so as to provide a modicum of constancy to their schedule. This was good news for fans of shows like Chuck, but it meant that NBC, instead of being able to build a schedule around existing tent pole shows, was instead lucky just to have any show with longevity.
Interviews with heads of programming at NBC in recent years have really provided a nice bit of insight into their outlook on this issue. The years since Leno/Conan played out have been considered rebuilding years, in which NBC has just been trying to rebuild their image, and overtaking the other networks has not been as much of a priority.
Theory 2: It’s not just NBC that’s in trouble these days, but network television in general. Thanks to competition from streaming video and cable, networks in general have been struggling to maintain the same numbers that they used to.
CBS is the top network in numbers overall, thanks to a schedule built around procedurals, but CBS also skews old. The coveted 18-45 demographic has responded to risky, high-concept shows like Lost and 24.
In an attempt to grab ratings, networks have been taking on riskier shows of late, like Once Upon a Time, Flash Forward, etc. The difference is that the other major networks have existing tent pole shows to bear the weight of failed new shows. The reason Lone Star didn’t hurt Fox too much in getting cancelled right away is because Fox still has American Idol, The Simpsons, etc. But if Awake doesn’t succeed, NBC is left with little to bolster their network.
It comes down to the idea that it’s much easier to maintain a top spot than it is to try to fight your way to the top from the bottom. If you have 3 or 4 genuine hits to build a schedule around, you can rely on those to carry your nights and focus on developing new shows to replace them once those hits start to show your age.
To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if NBC became the #1 network again in another three or four years. Right now, as a fourth place show, the network has little to lose and a lot to gain. I see them renewing bubble shows and allowing them to grow into cult hits (Community has a lot of potential, provided it doesn’t get cancelled this year), and taking risks. Even though it hasn’t paid off, those are exactly the ingredients needed to create those truly unique, resonant shows that pull audiences. All they need is for one or two of their shows to really break through, and NBC could return to its former glory.
And I’ve written a short novel, so my apologies to anyone who had to read through that entire rambling response.February 20, 2012 at 8:00 pm #23899
What you said about shrinking network TV audience is right on the money, stemming from more alternatives both in terms of television (cable channels, DVR) and other distractions (the Internet, video games). On the other hand, NBC is only failing in competitive terms — it’s still making a tidy profit as a business. So it’s hard to say.
But to the extent NBC is failing, it’s because of a couple of issues. One is, as you mentioned, the lack of tentpole shows — everything is either new-ish and untested, or has worn out its welcome (hello, The Office!). It also doesn’t seem to have a clear identity or an audience as a network (e.g. CBS is comfort TV, FOX is sleaze, etc.) NBC used to be the high-quality/critical favourites station to at least some extent, and it probably has more critical successes than the other TV networks (mainly owing to their Thursday night block) but that territory has been pretty much taken over by cable networks. I can’t help but feel that they would have been in a lot better shape if Heroes hadn’t imploded.
It’s sort of interesting to talk about, but I don’t really care about the plight of one antiquated content-delivery mechanism in its competition against others. With any luck this’ll lead to a lot of lower-rated shows (e.g. Communiy) getting a chance.February 20, 2012 at 11:19 pm #23905
The difficulty with NBC’s poor performance is that it really has tried to rely on it’s identity as broadcast’s critical darling, and the failure of that strategy is kind of depressing. I guess basically my thesis is that NBC has been trying to attract a vanishing audience: Younger, better-educated, more generally media-savvy viewers who are also prone to watching prime-time appointment television on broadcast networks. Community and Awake would both probably make more sense on, say, FX, where the financial considerations are less geared toward maximum live viewership.
Meanwhile, the rest of NBC’s lineup is less upscale in it’s appeal but doesn’t get seen because the core audience of AV Club readers who might tune in on Thursdays hates that kind of shit, and everyone else knows they can count on CBS for their fix of rote procedurals and Chuck Lorre, so why bother venturing out of that comfort zone.February 20, 2012 at 11:33 pm #23906
I agree with Weevilbits that NBC seems to be on the cutting edge with regard to who it is courting “younger, better-educated, more generally media-savvy viewers” but is still stuck in the past by expecting that audience to know what “appointment viewing” is. I am a huge fan of the Thursday night comedy block (and have been for many years), but my DVR and PC capture card tend to deliver me those shows on Sunday afternoon (sometimes two or three weeks later). The idea that someone is a week or two “behind” in seeing a show is no longer a social stigma to any degree (if it ever was) so nobody feels strong pressure to stay strongly up-to-date on their favorite shows, as long as they eventually get around to them. Live is no longer dictated by TV schedules for a large part of the young demographic.
When I was in grad school, May’s sweeps week usually happened in mid-summer. This is not unusual. So NBC may be getting a hammering in the ratings now, but I think it’s building up better for the post-30-second-advertising age where too many people use TiVo (or equivalent) to skip commercial breaks. By courting the well-educated minority, NBC is building a far more valuable commodity than lazy eyeballs: brand loyalty. If smart viewers affirmatively like NBC, they’ll be more tolerant of (and responsive to) the product placements and other non-commercial commercials that will be necessary to keep broadcast TV afloat.February 26, 2012 at 2:53 pm #24033
This actually ties in nicely with the debate that always comes up around Oscar time, i.e. the “snobs vs. slobs” quality of film awards shows, in which the winners and/or nominees for Oscars are movies that don’t generally play well in the flyover states. Of course, such perceptions have a kernal of truth to them but are overexaggerated (people in Omaha could appreciate “The Artist” just as well as cineastes in New York).
I would go into more detail, but my internet time is about to be cut off. So let me surmise that NBC, while taking chances, does rely on brands too often (how many Law and Orders do you need, really). But the other networks are guilty of that, too. So maybe my point is moot.February 26, 2012 at 4:41 pm #24034
I do think, however, that there is one major distinction between movies and TV in terms of popular appeal: accessibility. As a person born and raised in one of those flyover states, I can tell you that there are a lot of instances where even if there is a public demand to see certain indie movies, theaters may just not be showing them near you. With TV (particularly network TV) anyone can see any show – with the exception of things like local news or foreign-language stations, there is no such thing as a show everyone’s watching in New York that you can’t find in Iowa.
Interestingly, the network that I associate most with franchising shows is CBS (NCIS, CSI, etc.) while with NBC, I can’t even think of a currently running TV show franchise. Even Law and Order only has one current iteration as far as I know. So maybe the truth is a variation Trevor’s theory, and NBC hasn’t franchised enough. After all, Fox has the Seth McFarlane block as well as all of their permutations on different reality franchises, CBS has CSI and NCIS, ABC has Grey’s Anatomy/Private Practice, and NBC, for the most part, is limited to stand-alone shows, so to speak.March 4, 2012 at 9:10 pm #24152
NBC doesn’t have a number of shows pulling in great ratings like CBS, nor do they have a few tent pole shows like FOX and ABC. What they have is The Voice.
Aside from their sitcoms, the rest of NBC’s lineup is crap. I can’t think of a single drama on the network that I want to watch besides Awake. Even then I’m not sure I want to stay invested in it because the creator is unproven and the ratings for the pilot were middling at best. It feels like a less adventurous and more serious version of Life on Mars.
But the network does seem to be on somewhat of an upswing thanks to The Voice, Smash, and Grimm(!?). Although The Voice, Smash, and The Biggest Loser seem to be the only shows on the network that are pulling in good ratings. I think their gameplan has to be the one FOX and ABC use. One tent pole reality show (American Idol/The Voice/Dancing with the Stars), some dramas/procedurals that average 8-10 million viewers, and sitcoms that don’t embarrass the network.
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