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NBC Takes Southland's Badge. What's Next?

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Sometimes networks cancel low-rated shows after their first season, and sometimes they cancel low-rated shows in their second seasons. NBC, after adding The Jay Leno Show this fall, shows itself willing to continually innovate with new and creative ways to get rid of dramas: it renewed cop show Southland at the end of last season, then yesterday—while the show was in production but before it had aired a single season 2 episode—cancelled it. (In happier news, ABC picked up Modern Family, The Middle and Cougar Town for a full season.)

I wasn’t a huge Southland fan, as I wrote in the spring, but the move, in the context of NBC’s continuing low ratings and its general drive to downsize, has some interesting implications.

First: why cancel it now? The signs would seem to point to some kind of buyers’ remorse: either disappointment with the direction of the show, or taking back a decision that had been made under the old Ben Silverman regime. There’s also the fact that Leno leaves few timeslots for a gritty drama, but it’s not as if NBC didn’t know that in the spring.

Producer John Wells is now free to shop his cop show elsewhere, possibly to cable. One suggestion has been TNT, which has beefed up on dramas lately. The thinking is that Southland isn’t quite edgy enough for, say, FX. Which, let’s be honest, really means it isn’t quite good enough for FX. The problem with Southland, I wrote at the outset, is that it was The Shield, but watered down. That might have been fine for broadcast TV ten years ago, but with so many other and better options out there, “surprisingly good considering the limitations of network TV” doesn’t really cut it anymore. (That said, if the show can find a second home and improve, more power to it.)

And what does this mean for NBC, whose two new dramas, Mercy and Trauma, have bombed? (Its one relative success, so far, is Community—I’m excepting Leno so far because, given its existence as a cost-cutting measure, I’m not sure any of us know how to judge its success, particularly until we see how it fares against reruns.) Or, put another way: well, Mr. TIME critic, does it still look like Jay Leno is the future of TV?

I’m biased, but let me put it this way: Southland sure isn’t looking like the future of TV. Or, at least, Southland-as-an-NBC-drama isn’t. NBC says it’s committed to Jay Leno for two years. Suppose they cut him loose after that: do you think NBC is going to replace him with five expensive 10 p.m. dramas? The Southland move doesn’t indicate so.

Rather, NBC seems to be committing to the notion that it is now a large cable network. (Maybe by necessity, because its ratings are so bad, but it’s nonetheless the case.) This is not necessarily a bad thing for quality TV in the future. Maybe the NBC of the future will debut a handful of scripted shows in a season. Fine: that’s what HBO, FX and AMC are doing. Works fine by me.

The issue, of course, is putting on the right handful of shows per season. Cable also has TNT, A&E and USA focusing on middlebrow light entertainments that could be running on, well, NBC if it were willing to spend the money.

My hope is that NBC sees that its relative scripted successes are shows like The Office and 30 Rock—award-winning shows without massive audiences, but with committed followings (and, concomitantly, good demographics). Maybe by really working on a handful of dramas in the same vein—think Friday Night Lights, but with a real network commitment to promote it—NBC could find a way to downsize with quality, by focusing on a niche that appreciates that quality.

Let’s hope so, anyway, because the alternative is going to be the 14th hour of the Today Show, and The Even Biggerest Loser.

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