NBC’s Fourth Place Problem

by Bethany McHugh

Networks need an exit strategy when they find their ratings slipping, but it appears NBC doesn’t have one. The network has always been the face of television, as its history alone speaks for itself. From “Cheers” to “The Cosby Show” to “The West Wing,” NBC presidents have created programs that have allowed their successors to keep the network afloat, while developing replacement hits at the same time.

Yet in 2003, NBC’s slow descent began. President Jeff Zucker renewed “Friends” for an additional season, not just to give it a creatively satisfying conclusion, but to buy time to find a suitable replacement as part of his exit strategy. If the new show commands a large audience, the older hit can glide into a safe retirement. If not, the network must scurry to develop a more suitable and profitable show, as NBC had done under Zucker and has continued to do ever since.

When co-chairman Ben Silverman entered the equation, NBC fell into an impasse, churning out unsuccessful programs. This left Bob Greenblatt, Silverman’s eventual successor and former president of entertainment at Showtime, in trouble. So far, the shows that he hoped would become hits have flopped with critics and audiences.

Earlier this year, Greenblatt said NBC “made comedy an important goal” for the current season, as evidenced by the 22-episode orders for freshman comedies “Up All Night” and “Whitney.” But why has NBC given special treatment to average shows? Comedy is already the network’s strongest suit, with Thursday’s lineup standing as a formidable night of quality comedy. Was it due to their new dramas failing this season, or was it because NBC essentially put its reputation on the line for “Whitney” and refused to accept anything less than success? It is not as if NBC were in need of replacement comedies; “Community” has been benched midseason to make room for the Chelsea Handler vehicle.

Millions spent on promoting a show that is only decent could be better spent in the development of quality television. ABC has surged ahead in the ratings because of its uncanny ability to pick programming that is not just appealing to masses, but is executed in a professional, artistic way. NBC, however, has graced us this season with shows that are boring, cliched, and borderline unwatchable.

There is no doubt about it; NBC is in trouble. Having already slipped from first to fourth place in the ratings, declining to fifth could become an unfortunate reality. Greenblatt needs to go back to NBC’s basics and focus on development. Only time will tell if new midseason series “Smash” and “Awake” have had enough care during the development stages to act as the exit strategies necessary to keep NBC afloat.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, January 30th edition of the Washington Square News. Bethany McHugh is a staff writer. Email her at entertainment@nyunews.com.

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