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TCAs 2012: NBC’s Monkey Business

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Animal Practice, henceforth to be known as That One Show With the Monkey In It

NBC, in the past several years, has not had a lot of ratings success. But at least it had some respect. The Office was a hit, and then when it wasn’t a huge hit, it still received praise for performances like Steve Carell’s. Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Community all had the audiences of cable shows, but they were creatively ambitious and acclaimed (and most of NBC’s non-acclaimed shows were not doing much better anyway). NBC may not have had the hits, but at least it had pride.

This morning at the Beverly Hilton, NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt spoke to introduce the network’s new fall schedule, with a message: NBC can no longer afford pride. Those sophisticated, risk-taking, grown-up comedies? Love ‘em! Not going to do ‘em so much anymore!

“We’re in a transition,” Greenblatt said. “We’re trying to broaden the audience.” And while he called the network’s Thursday roster–and Community, moving to Fridays, “great shows,” he frankly said: “We just can’t get the audience for them. They tend to be a little bit more narrow and more sophisticated than you want for a broad audience.”

So what is not more sophisticated than you want for a broad audience? For starters, there’s veterinarian comedy Animal Practice, which hereinafter shall properly be referred to as That One Show With the Monkey In It (or (TOSWMII). There’s Guys With Kids, or That One Show With the Dudes Wearing Baby Bjorns. There are The New Normal and Go On, both shows with elements of past NBC comedies (upscale characters, ersatz families), but, well, “broader.”

In other words, no one is saying that NBC is getting rid of Parks and Rec. Greenblatt even said he would not rule out another season of Community. But I think any showrunner sees “transition” and sees, “Don’t buy new office furniture.” If you’re a fan of those shows, hey, I don’t have a crystal ball. But don’t go building shelves for their future DVD sets just yet.

Now look: NBC is under no obligation to make challenging, narrow sitcoms that only critics like me love. TV is a business, and that, as history proves, frequently means being a monkey business. Also: you can make big, broad, even dumb comedies that are great! (See Married… With Children.) Finally: there is nothing wrong with monkeys! (Community, I will note, has a monkey.)

But you can’t successfully make them if you don’t believe in them. And there’s a general feeling, in NBC’s period of “transition,” of: “All right, here is apparently what you people want to watch, have at it.” That’s a position, essentially, of contempt. And it’s not likely to make either good or successful TV. (Brandon Tartikoff, back in the day, made crap, but glorious crap that he believed in.)

To fall into network-speak, you need to know your “brand.” That is: I know what a CBS comedy is now (racy, vulgar, big jokes). I know what an ABC comedy is (various riffs on modern families). I know what a Fox comedy is (dysfunction, young people, dysfunctional young people.)

NBC’s “narrow,” critic-bait Thursday comedies may have been a drag on ratings, but they were its comedy brand. And “things kind of like that, but less weird and not too smart” is not a brand. You don’t win people over by promising less of something. If I look at NBC’s new comedy lineup, the only roughly common denominator I see is “upscale, white-collar characters.” (The execs on stage tried to identify the shows as “warm, with heart,” but that’s [1] boilerplate programmer-speak and [2] true as well of Community and Parks and Rec.)

For all I know, incidentally, any of these comedies could turn out to be good—even TOSWMII—though I have not been blown away by any of the pilots. But saying you’re going to get a “broad” audience just by dialing back the smarts? That’s just monkeying with people.

Now for a quick hail of bullets from the rest of the presentation:

* NBC will air two Saturday Night Live election specials on Thursday, September 20 and 27. Welcome, but also oddly timed, seeing as how none of the debates will even be held until October.

* Credit where due: Last season, NBC (barely) finished above fourth place in the advertiser demographic, the first time it had done so in eight years, and to Greenblatt, that was enough to call it a “great” season. We’re! Number! Three! We’re! Number! Three!

* A reporter asked the excellent question of why promoting new shows during the Olympics, as NBC vows/hopes, will work this year when it hasn’t any of the recent Olympic years. Execs did not have an excellent answer; essentially, “Um, better promos?”

* Greenblatt remains “inordinately proud” of Smash. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to look up the meaning of “inordinately,” which I’ve apparently been using wrong all these years.

9 comments
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lucelucy
lucelucy

What can I say?  Except in the anthropological sense and wishing them well in the wild, I'm not that crazy about monkeys.  Hell, politics aside, I was appalled that we elected the star of "Bedtime for Bonzo" for president that one time.  Just embarrassing.

ghunda
ghunda

Presumably this means that NBC will become a 24/7 Kardashian Network. Hundred dollah billz, y'all.

rhys1882
rhys1882

Executives are full of it. You really think they greenlit Parks amp; Rec and Community thinking they were going to be critically acclaimed but low rated? No, they greenlit hoping they would have broad appeal and be successful in the ratings. Parks amp; Rec was greenlit while the Office was still a juggernaut and was an attempt to copy that success. Community started out as a fairly straightforward sitcom with fairly up-and-coming comedians involved, as well as the stunt casting of Chevy Chase. Parks amp; Rec and Community stayed on the air because not because NBC cared that they were critically acclaimed, but because their ratings are so bad across the board Parks amp; Rec and Community do OK in ratings for their standards.

The idea that NBC can simply will itself into making shows that appeal to a broader audience is just ridiculous. It's like they are claiming they weren't really trying before, but now they are really going to buckle down and make CBS type shows and bring in the big ratings with their new broad appeal. Please. No network is consciously avoiding ratings and shows with broad appeal in favor of critical praise. NBC just keeps failing at getting any sort of ratings traction, not because they are aiming for high quality shows that don't get ratings, but, at least partly, because many of the shows they greenlight are crappy.

Keep in mind that the past few years have included gems such as Outsourced, Whitney, Perfect Couples, Are You There Chelsea and the Paul Reiser Show. Are they claiming they weren't aiming for a broad audience with those shows? What critically acclaimed, narrow audience sitcom have they developed since they picked up Community over three years ago? None. Even with dramas, only Awake really qualifies, and that's just one show out of many. So all this talk is complete BS for the purpose of pretending that they actually have some sort of new plan that will get them real ratings finally. Really though, it's just going to be business as usual.

TedC2
TedC2

 Also, 30 Rock only went on the air to appease Lorne Michaels. They believed "Studio 60" would be the hit behind the scenes at SNL show and 30 Rock would quietly get canceled.

OkayButOnly
OkayButOnly

Been a longtime reader.

Page borked on me after a much longer impassioned so-and-so, not sure if that's a blessing, but here's a shorter (still long) second draft:

NBC have my respect because of the funny shows they say they're not going to make any more. They have also got my support for those shows, but they've never cared about it apparently. I don't figure into their live, date-of-air ratings.

Having bought the DVDs, watched and clicked online ads, and encouraged friends to view and support Community, Parks, 30 Rock and The Office in any way they can for the 3-8 years they've been around, respectively, I feel like a donor/voter for a campaign team that refuses to acknowledge me. What should I do? I won't go buy a TV and sit my butt down and watch things from X to X:30, that ship sailed long ago. There's nothing NBC or any network can do get me to watch MORE. They can only discourage me, and that's what they're doing with this news. Not that I matter, again. They're after OTHER people who apparently like broader humor, or possibly just have narrower broadband. At any rate, I buy less, click less, support less. Because the message seems to be that my version of support is worth only a fraction of someone else's.

Tempted to shoehorn in something loaded and inappropriate like being counted as 3/5ths of a viewer. There! Did it.

NBC can shuffle nights and refocus its brand of comedy, and I get that they're chasing live audiences... I won't ever be among them. Some of the greatest television ever aired has been aired in the era of digital recorders and Internet streaming, and I have watched it via those media. NBC could make pure gold but I will never be counted in its ratings. What bugs me is, they start to make pure shit trying to win over other people... and thinking I am among the other people, because they NEVER COUNTED MY VOTE because of their antiquated ratings system. Maybe a shit show will turn me into a live viewer? Sort of thing. It's frustrating.

Not sure where I'm going with all this. Wasn't sure with the first draft either. Thing is, I can't really fault NBC for chasing live audiences if their whole business is in selling ad spots. And it makes sense, in a way, to marginalize their smart shows if we're all watching them after the fact anyway. We can continue to do so on any night. Until, of course, "low ratings" become the reason to cancel those shows.

Hmm.

Jess_Witt
Jess_Witt

Yeah, I thought as much that NBC wouldn't focus on sophisticated sitcoms any more (the ratings were a telltale sign of things to come). But hey, I'll be fine with that so long as they can keep a few low-rated unique comedies (Parks and Rec, Community) while bringing in new blood with the brand name of mass appeal. I'll even give their new shows a chance, but please, no laugh tracks.