Things have been dire at NBC for so long that network entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt could be forgiven for opening his press tour session by celebrating the network’s third-place finish for the season in the adults 18-49 demographic. Even if it was boosted by the Super Bowl, it was still NBC’s first finish above fourth place since the 2003-04 TV season.
The one good thing NBC has had going for it during this dark, dark period has been a collection of shows – particularly the comedies on Thursday – that have been praised early and often by the TV critics Greenblatt was addressing. Unfortunately, our love doesn’t translate into ratings, and part of Greenblatt’s plan to bring the network back from oblivion involves moving away from the strategy that gave us “30 Rock,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Community.”
“Those Thursday comedies, which the critics love, and we love,” Greenblatt explained, “tend to be a bit more narrow than we’d ultimately like going forward.”
He continued heaping praise on the returning comedies even as he tried to distance himself from the philosophy that created them.
“Given what’s happened at the network in the last four or five years, with the general decline across the whole week and the loss of circulation, we just can’t get the biggest audience for those shows,” he acknowledged, “but they do tend to be a little bit more narrow and sophisticated than you might want for a broad audience. I hope these new shows we’ve got for the fall and the spring are also clever and also smart, but can also broaden the size of the audience.
“I don’t want to say anything negative about what Tina Fey does, or ‘Parks and Rec’ or ‘The Office,'” he added. “Those are great shows. But it’s a challenge in comedy to broaden.”
The desire to get a bigger audience is understandable. The current NBC ratings just can’t be sustainable in the long term. But how the network plans to broaden is the question.
The new comedies include familiar stars (“Go On” with Matthew Perry), high concepts (“The New Normal,” about a gay couple hiring a single mom to be a surrogate for their baby) and concepts that are easy to put into a promo (“Animal Practice” includes lots of cute critters, including the monkey from “Community,” while “Guys with Kids” has babies). But the “Go On” pilot – with Perry as a sportscaster ordered to attend a grief counseling support group after his wife dies – is structurally identical to the “Community” pilot (even if it won’t be as weird going forward), and if some of the other shows might translate more easily into an ad, it’s hard to imagine several of them bringing viewers back after an initial sampling. “Guys With Kids” is a CBS-style sitcom that CBS would likely not want to air, for instance.
When I asked Greenblatt and entertainment president Jennifer Salke about the “Go On”/”Community” similarities, Salke insisted the two are actually quite different, even though both are about sarcastic loners forced to open up and better themselves when they land in a group of diverse eccentrics.