Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Network Upfront Preview: NBC - Sports, The Voice and Not Much Else

Network upfronts – where the networks all come together to announce their fall schedules and pitch their new shows to advertisers – are barely more than two weeks away, which means the 2013-14 television season is quickly coming to a close.  I’ll probably have a season wrap-up post at the end of May, but I wanted to take a quick look at each network and its shows (and maybe make a few renewal/cancelation predictions) before upfronts hit.  First up is this season’s almost certain victor: NBC.

NBC is going to win the ratings race this season.  It’s almost certain.  Their lead in the same-day ratings is almost a full point over CBS and Fox and they currently lead Fox in the Live+7 ratings by .2 points.*  The network rode Sunday Night Football, The Voice, and the Olympics to its best year in a decade, literally.  NBC last won the season title in 2003-04, when ER was still in its prime and Friends was in its final season.  The intervening years have seen the rise and (not-quite completed) fall of Fox and American Idol.  They saw ABC hit it big with Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Grey’s Anatomy and then crater without them.  NBC, itself, has been filled with turmoil trying to get back to the “top of the rock,” not least of which the many faces of The Tonight Show and the disaster that was The Jay Leno Show.

* The big difference in the gaps comes from the fact that NBC’s most-watched programs do not see much of a gain from DVR viewership.

The Questions
But 2014 is not 2004 and today’s NBC is not as strong as that year’s NBC was.  While it may have a few juggernauts, there are still holes all over the schedule.  Comedy development has been a disaster and, while they’ve seen some modest drama success, the vast majority of the network’s schedule would be generously described as “below-average.”  The good news, though, is that NBC does have some building blocks.  While The Voice couldn’t help Revolution or either of the comedies that followed it last year, The Blacklist has been a legitimate hit on Mondays and About a Boy has been serviceable on Tuesdays.  The big questions facing NBC in 2014-15 are: Will they let The Blacklist anchor its own night and What on earth are they going to do with Thursdays?

The Numbers
NBC’s Live+Same Day average currently sits at 2.44.  Given their recent trends I estimate that they’ll finish somewhere around 2.3, representing a fifteen percent increase over last year and just narrowly besting CBS’s season-winning mark from 2013.  Unfortunately, as mentioned above, those numbers are almost entirely the result of sports and The Voice.  In terms of scripted programming, NBC was far less successful this past year.  Their new drama average is currently 1.65, just barely beating out Fox’s 1.64 to avoid last place and their new comedy average of 1.30 is firmly cemented in the cellar.  In other words, despite finishing in first place on the season NBC will end up with the worst scripted series average of any of the four major networks.  There are building blocks there, but the network desperately needs to figure out how to use them.

The Schedule (Titles in BOLD have already been renewed for next season; titles in strikethrough have already been canceled)
Monday –
2013-14 Schedule –
7:00pm – The Voice (3.71 average rating)
9:00pm – The Blacklist (2.92 average)

The Voice is firmly entrenched on Monday nights, regularly ranking as the highest-rated program of the night.  The big question is whether or not NBC will leave The Blacklist at 9:00 in order to keep winning the night or if they will try to launch a new drama there.  There is some precedent for staying the course.  Several years ago ABC received a great deal of criticism from a certain segment of the ratings pundits for continuing to air Castle after Dancing with the Stars despite losing a great deal of the then juggernaut’s audience.  But ABC has kept the pair together for six years now and Castle has remained steady in spite of the rather significant erosion of DwtS’s audience.  NBC could decide to keep The Blacklist on Monday nights to maintain its strength, but conventional wisdom says they should move the show both to allow The Voice to nurture a new drama and to allow The Blacklist to a feed a lead-in of its own.  The obvious move would be to send it to Thursday night, but that has some problems of its own, which we’ll get to in a bit.

Tuesday –
7:00pm – Biggest Loser (1.94) – The Voice (3.71)
8:00pm – The Voice (3.71) – About a Boy (1.99)/Growing up Fisher (1.66)
9:00pm – Chicago Fire (2.05)

Moving Chicago Fire to follow The Voice was probably the best move NBC made this season.  It resulted in the show transitioning from an average performer to a legitimate success.  I doubt much about this night is going to change, with the one question of the comedies.  About a Boy and Growing up Fisher both performed perfectly adequately this spring.  But following highly-rated premieres, the shows have declined consistently to the point that, removed from their cushy Voice lead-in, I don’t believe either would draw much better ratings than Parks and Rec or Community did on Thursday nights.  This is the second consecutive year that NBC has tried to put comedies after The Voice on Tuesdays and failed to find a hit.  Will they continue to go to that same well again?

Also worth noting is that Tuesdays were an unmitigated disaster for NBC in the spring of 2013.  They were spared last year by having two weeks of the Olympics and I doubt they’ll hold The Voice for late-March as they did last year.  But there’s still going to be two months at the beginning of 2015 when it will be off the air and the network will need to find a way to stay alive.

Wednesday –
7:00pm – Revolution (1.40)
8:00pm – Law & Order: SVU (1.78)
9:00pm – Ironside (1.05) – Chicago PD (1.69)

The combination of SVU and Chicago PD on Wednesdays has been surprisingly (in my eyes) successful.  NBC still finishes in fourth most nights, but the pair are both above-network average for the year and SVU has actually risen in the ratings from 2012-13.  As I see it, NBC has three options with Wednesday night.  First, they can play it safe, adding a new show (or comedy block) at 7:00 without touching anything else.  Second, they can gut the night, moving Chicago PD to Tuesday night with Chicago Fire and hoping SVU can launch a new show where Ironside failed this fall.  Lastly, they can make a big play for the night by moving The Blacklist here, either leading into a new drama or allowing SVU to move back to its more natural home at 9:00. 

Wednesday nights seem ripe for the picking for the right dramas.  Fox has abandoned the night to singing competitions for the last few years while ABC runs comedies.  And the dramas CBS is airing on Wednesday are in their ninth and fourteenth seasons, respectively.  New drama blood could do well on this night, but it would require NBC to take a chance, and I’m not sure how willing they will be to do that.

Thursday –
7:00pm – Parks and Recreation (1.17)/Welcome to the Family (0.93) – Community (1.08)/Parks and Recreation (1.17)
8:00pm – Sean Saves the World (1.02)/The Michael J Fox Show (1.10) – Hollywood Game Night (1.20)
9:00pm – Parenthood (1.27)

“Unmitigated disaster” is the only appropriate descriptor for NBC Thursday nights.  What was once “Must See TV” has turned into “Must Flee TV.”  Please forgive the terribleness of that pun.  NBC debuted three new shows on Thursday this year and not a single one made it to February.  The continued disaster has allowed Parks and Rec to badger the network into a seventh (and likely final) season and may even get Community the penultimate step toward #sixseasonsandamovie.  The obvious move would be to bring The Blacklist to 8:00 on Thursdays next fall, but that would put it head-to-head against Thursday Night Football, which is airing on CBS in September and October.  The NFL will likely draw huge numbers so it will be interesting to see what the other networks try to run against it.  Alan Sepinwall and Dan Feinberg of HitFix remarked (partially in jest) that, were the production schedules able to allow it, NBC might be best off running hour-long episodes of Community and Parks and Recreation along with Hannibal against football just to get all of their low-rated, critically-acclaimed shows out of the way on a night when everything would get slaughtered anyway.  I have no idea what NBC will do with Thursday nights in the fall, especially in the face of the NFL, but what they did this year did not work…at all.

Friday –
7:00pm – Dateline NBC
8:00pm – Grimm (1.43)
9:00pm – Dracula (1.03) – Hannibal (0.88)

Grimm has been a steady performer on Friday nights for the last several years, though it hasn’t shown any breakout potential, whether airing after the Olympics for a bit in 2012 or after The Voice for a few weeks last spring.  Still, it will likely be back in this same spot in the fall.  The big question is what NBC will do with the 9:00pm slot after Grimm.  Two years ago, they slotted their news programs, Dateline NBC and Rock Center in there to no success.  This year, they decided to go with cheap international co-productions in Dracula and Hannibal.  It hasn’t exactly been a rousing success but, depending on the financials, it may just have worked.  I doubt Dracula will be back but Hannibal has a chance, owing to its lost cost and critical acclaim.  I just don’t know if NBC is satisfied pulling 0.8-1.0 rating in that timeslot.  Then again, putting a more expensive traditional program there might be even worse.  There may not be a right answer when it comes to Friday night, but I’ll continue to plead the case of the massively under-rated Hannibal.

Sunday –
7:00pm – Sunday Night Football (7.14) – American Dream Builders (0.88)
8:00pm – Sunday Night Football (7.14) – Believe (1.21)
9:00pm – Sunday Night Football (7.14) – Crisis (1.14)

Nothing really needs to be said about Sunday Night Football except that it’s a juggernaut, and the highest rated program on broadcast television.*  The spring schedule, on the other hand, needs a boost.  American Dream Builders only got to air four episodes being shuffled back to 6:00pm on Sunday nights in favor of more Dateline and it was announced just today that both Believe and Crisis have been pulled from the schedule for the foreseeable future.  Spring has basically been a dead zone for scripted program on NBC since they acquired Sunday Night Football as the only show to perform even remotely adequately has been The Apprentice.  ABC proved this spring with Resurrection that mid-season event television can work, but NBC needs something that will better resonate with viewers.  After all, Believe was meant to be that kind of event programming coming from JJ Abrams and Alfonso Cuarón (fresh off his Oscar win), even if neither one had any input on the everyday running of the show.  Perhaps this is where we’ll see the Heroes reboot or some similar big-name show.

* It may be the highest-rated program on all of television but The Walking Dead was close this year and I don’t have its exact numbers at hand.

So that’s the situation NBC faces going into upfronts: a top-heavy lineup anchored by sports and The Voice serving to mask the troubling numbers from its scripted programming.  We’ll know just what the network plans to do when they release their fall schedule this week, most likely on Sunday night.

Tyler Williams is a professional library and amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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