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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.