The days leading up to the network upfront schedule presentations are the TV reporter equivalent of the baseball trading deadline. Rumors, rumors everywhere, everyone racing to lock down a piece of information before the dozens of people chasing the same story, unsure whether the tidbit they’ve been given is real, misdirection, or an attempt to negotiate something in public. (Yesterday’s stories about CBS wanting Hugh Grant to replace Charlie Sheen on “Two and a Half Men” definitely seemed like negotiating through the press.) When FOX made its decisions Monday night on which pilots to pick up and which to pass on, I saw a few frustrated “Why do we bother?”-style tweets from reporters noting that the buzz only days earlier was completely backwards for several of these shows.
All of which is to say that while I’m excited and borderline-shocked by all the reports from last night that NBC’s close to ordering at least 13 more episodes of “Chuck” for a fifth season, I’m believing nothing until I hear it from either an NBC official, Chris Fedak or Josh Schwartz. If Deadline/TVLine, Variety and Entertainment Weekly are all reporting that this is where NBC’s leaning, I’m assuming they’re right, but stranger things have happened at upfront time.
If these reports are right, though? Damn good news, and understandable for the reasons I outlined in my Bubble Watch column. Yes, the “Chuck” ratings have sunk from poor-but-acceptable to just plain awful as this season has gone along, but it’s still a known quantity. It’s never going to be a hit, but its audience is its audience (even if it’s been smaller this spring than it was in the fall), and NBC can put it on the schedule and not worry about having to promote it at all.(*) New NBC boss Bob Greenblatt is going to have to premiere a whole bunch of new product next season, and every new show launch costs a lot of money in terms of production, promotion, etc., even though most new series fail. We’ve seen in the past (the fall of 2004, when ABC put all of its promotional muscle behind “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” or this spring, when NBC focused everything on “The Voice”) that concentrating your marketing on only a few shows is much wiser than trying to carpet-bomb audiences with ads for 7 or 8 new shows at once. So if “Chuck” does come back – and the same could be said about “Harry’s Law,” and maybe even “Law & Order: LA” – it’ll be as schedule-filler, to allow NBC to focus its resources elsewhere.
(*) And to pre-empt the complaints about NBC’s lack of promotion for the show, that ship sailed a long time ago. NBC did promote “Chuck” once upon a time. They put a lot of money and time, for instance, into plugging the 3-D episode that aired after the Super Bowl in season 2. It hasn’t helped. There comes a point where a network accepts that a veteran show isn’t going to suddenly attract millions of new viewers, and then their attention turns elsewhere. I think “Chuck” should have been a bigger success than it’s been, but the audience at large hasn’t agreed with me, and at least we’ve gotten four seasons out of it, and possibly a fifth.
If this happens, the one thing I would like is for the creative team to have some certainty about how many episodes they’re making, whether this really is the final season, etc. I’ll take as much “Chuck” as NBC will give me, but at the same time, the show has clearly had some creative bumps this year in terms of not knowing exactly when the season and/or the series would be ending. If Greenblatt says to Fedak and Schwartz, “Okay, I’m giving you 13 episodes to end the show, so do what you want with that,” I think that would be preferable to the uncertainty that’s hung over the show these last two seasons. I don’t want “Chuck” to end, but I think if the writers knew exactly when the end was coming, we could get a pretty spectacular final half-season.
What a weird, roller-coaster season it’s been for “Chuck.” We came into the year all assuming that season four would be the end, that the show was being brought back as cannon fodder the same way it may come back next season. Then all of NBC’s new shows failed, while “Chuck” kept plugging along with its usual demo numbers, to the point where, when Fienberg and I interviewed Schwartz and Fedak in January, we were super confident that a fifth season was in the bag. Those guys refused to be that confident, and their fears were borne out when the numbers dipped a little at the end of season 4.0, and then a lot when Daylight Savings Time kicked in. And for the last few weeks, I’ve been bracing myself for the idea that these would be the last episodes of “Chuck” I ever got to watch.
And now? Well, again, I’ll believe it when it’s actually official, but Chuck Bartowski may somehow get a fifth season. That, boys and girls, is both happy and crazy news.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org