Robert Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC Entertainment, outlined at the Television Critic’s Association last summer his new strategy for comedies:
“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.”
The argument he made then, and continued to make all fall, is that broader is better. If NBC is going to succeed, it would need less sophisticated comedies with “niche” audiences, and more sitcoms that catered to a broader swath of viewers.
Greenblatt was wrong. His plan failed.
The numbers don’t lie, folks. Animal Practice was quickly canceled, for instance, and here is the list of NBC sitcoms and their ratings among the 18-49 demo for their last first run episode.
Go On: 1.3
New Normal: 1.2
30 Rock: 1.3
Parks and Rec: 1.9
The Office: 2.1
1600 Penn: 1.2
Guys with Kids: 1.3
You see that, folks? Without The Voice lead-in to bolster it, NBC’s only marginal success, Go On, gets ratings on par with Guys with Kids, and less than Whitney. The broad comedies are failing. They are getting Ben and Kate ratings. You see which of those shows had the highest ratings? The Office and Parks and Recreation (which is why Parks and Rec was moved to the renewal category this week).
Likewise, look at the ratings for ABC’s sitcoms.
Happy Endings: 1.3
Don’t Trust the B: 1.1
The Middle: 2.3
Modern Family: 3.2
Granted, that was a low week for Modern Family (which is regularly over 4.0 or 5.0), but their Wednesday night block does fairly well, particularly The Middle and Suburgatory. Why? Stability. They’ve been able to hang out on the same night, gain an audience, and flourish. They have used Modern Family to build an audience. Similarly, CBS used Two and a Half Men as an anchor to build their widely successful sitcoms, Big Bang Theory, 2 Broke Girls, How I Met Your Mother, and Mike & Molly. I won’t speak to their quality (they’re all terrible except for HIMYM), but they’ve been able to succeed because CBS provides stability and strong lead-ins.
Greenblatt wants to argue that it’s broad comedies that viewers watch. My point is that it’s more about stability, about allowing a show to find an audience, and about sticking with it. Parks and Recreation is in its fifth season, and the only sitcom more successful on NBC is The Office, in its eighth season. Likewise, over on Fox, of their four sitcoms, only two are likely to return next year: The two that were around last year. Ben and Kate won’t, and The Mindy Project probably won’t get another year, but IF they did, and if they had some timeslot stability, maybe their audiences would grow incrementally.
Look: I understand that the numbers aren’t good for any sitcoms these days except for Modern Family and the CBS shows, and that the networks need to recalibrate their expectations, but the ones that do best are the ones that are given some time to find an audience. Community will return next month, and I guarantee you that, in its fourth season, it does better than Go On without The Voice lead-in. But then again, if Go On is allowed a few more seasons WITHOUT THE CONSTANT THREAT OF CANCELLATION, maybe it’d grow, too.
Viewers are skittish. They don’t want to get invested in a show that will be yanked away from them. The CBS audience is comfortable knowing their shows aren’t going to leave them, and so they tune in each week knowing what to expect. I’m sure the brand of comedy has something to do with its success, but good shows may not put up HUGE numbers every week, but they will provide some growing stability. NBC doesn’t have an anchor sitcom to build upon, so until it does, it’d be a lot better off trying new, interesting things instead of trying to duplicate the strategy of CBS, which only works because CBS has a sizable audience with which to promote their shows already. I mean, after all, if all your sitcoms are going to get crap ratings, isn’t it better to have a good sitcom that you can be proud of with low ratings than a broad sitcom?
Tina Fey was right a few weeks ago, when she dismissed Greenblatt’s broader is better strategy:
“You know what? They’re wrong, and I’m going to wait that out,” Fey said. “What they want is hits, but no one knows what that is. Remember when Jeff Zucker was like: ‘I’ve got a new plan! We’re only going to make hits!’ [Laughs.] It’s hard. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be a network exec.”
Zucker may have been an idiot, but his strategy was better. At least it didn’t exclude an entire brand of smart comedy.