Saturday, May 9, 2015

Network Upfront Preview - NBC: The Fading Champion

The biggest news this week was Undateable's renewal for an all-live season

Network upfronts – where the networks all come together to announce their fall schedules and pitch their new shows to advertisers – are here, which means the 2014-15 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 before upfronts hit.  First up is this season’s almost certain repeat champion: NBC.

Let’s start with the positives.  For the second consecutive year, NBC will walk away with the season Live+Same Day and Live+7 ratings crowns.  They currently lead CBS by a quarter of a point in the Same Day ratings and by .2 in the L+7 numbers.  They have the highest-rated program on network television in Sunday Night Football and a big two-night performer in The Voice. 

But look past the surface and the network’s numbers get very ugly very quickly.  Another year has gone by without developing a sitcom hit or a hit at all.  In fact, NBC is likely going to cancel every single new show it debuted during the 2014-15 season.*  That is ridiculous.  The last time that happened was more than forty years ago during the 1973-74 season when, again, NBC canceled all of its freshman series.  At least then the network had the excuse of devoting more than a third of its schedule to primetime movies and it had one of the finest nightly lineups in television history with All in the Family, M*A*SH*, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show.  Even last year’s big hit, The Blacklist, has cratered in the last few weeks after getting the post-Super Bowl timeslot and initially surviving a midseason move to Thursdays. 

* I guess that’s what I get for writing this piece in the middle of renewal and cancellation week.  NBC somewhat surprisingly renewed The Mysteries of Laura late last night, guaranteeing that at least one of their freshman shows will get a second season.

For those wondering just how dire the straits are, consider this: NBC aired only three scripted hours this season that beat the non-sports average for the five broadcast networks.  By comparison, that’s fewer than half the above-average hours of CBS and ABC and fewer even than the four above-average hours of last place Fox, which also shows seven fewer hours of primetime programming than the peacock network.

The Questions
The biggest question, then, is how long can NBC stay on top?  Frankly, the answer is probably “about three weeks.”  The truth is, sans Super Bowl, NBC would currently be in a neck-and-neck race with CBS for the ratings titles.  Considering that CBS gets the Super Bowl next year, it’s not out of line to predict that, barring stunning ratings reversals, CBS is the favorite to lead the pack in 2015-16. 

In the micro sense, NBC really needs to figure out its comedy plan.  Only summer transplant Undateable, which hasn’t officially been renewed yet, seems likely to return and, in fact, the dearly departed Parks and Recreation is going to wind up as NBC’s second highest-rated comedy of the year.  The network abandoned Thursday night comedies, on which it made its name in the 90s and seems to have really lost any kind of brand identity in the genre.  Given that they’ve only ordered four new comedy series to date, it wouldn’t be surprising if the closest thing to comedy on NBC’s fall schedule is Best Time Ever, the new variety show from Neil Patrick Harris.

The Numbers
NBC’s Live+Same Day average currently sits at 2.00.  Given their recent trends, I estimate that they’ll finish somewhere around 1.95, representing about a fifteen percent decrease from last year and down even from the network's 2012-13 average, when it finished in second place behind CBS.  Sports and The Voice continue to drive NBC’s ratings, though, and their scripted series ratings continue to struggle.  For the second straight year, the network will finish with the worst comedy average of the four major networks.  I said last year that there are building blocks on the NBC schedule, but I’m beginning to wonder if that’s true, as The Voice again fails to create any momentum, The Blacklist dies when it moves off of Monday, and the network's highest-rated series all seem to end up in the 9:00 timeslot.

The Schedule (Titles in BOLD have already been renewed for next season; titles in strikethrough have already been canceled)

Monday –
7:00pm – The Voice (3.28 average rating) – Celebrity Apprentice (2.04)
9:00pm – The Blacklist (2.44) – State of Affairs (1.28) – The Night Shift (1.31)

NBC made a big move this year by moving its hit show, The Blacklist out of the prime The Voice leadout and pitting it head-to-head against last year’s highest-rated drama, Scandal, on Thursday nights.  At first, the plan didn’t seem so bad for the James Spader-helmed series.  Sure, there was a bit of drop-off from fall to spring, but it still gave the network a strong showing on a valuable night that had recently been generating little in terms of ratings.  Recently, however, the move seems to have not been playing out so well.  The Katherine Heigl drama State of Affairs bombed post-The Voice and summer carryover The Night Shift only did slightly better.  Meanwhile, The Blacklist has cratered on Thursday nights, drawing a sub-1.5 average over the last six weeks and fairly regularly finishing third in its timeslot.  Add in the fact that the network was unable to draw even acceptable ratings out of the two spring dramas paired with The Blacklist (The Slap and Allegiance), and NBC spent pretty much the entire season just praying for Sunday once Thursday came.  I don’t expect a great deal of change here when NBC announces its schedule tomorrow.  The Voice will likely retain the 7:00pm timeslot with the most promising new drama placed behind it.

Tuesday –
7:00pm – The Voice (2.91) – Parks and Recreation (1.33) – The Voice (2.91)
8:00pm – Marry Me (1.19)/About a  Boy (1.04) – Undateable (1.44)/One Big Happy (1.17)
9:00pm – Chicago Fire (1.83)

The Dick Wolf Chicago series continues to provide steady, if unspectacular ratings for NBC in the ever more difficult 9:00 hour.  The big question on Tuesdays is what NBC will decide to slot in-between The Voice and Chicago Fire.  Sitcoms have mostly struggled in that hour for the past year-and-a-half, though Undateable has done reasonably well and was just announced to be airing all live episodes next season, so NBC has a few options.  It wouldn’t be surprising to see Neil Patrick Harris’s variety show end up here as a slightly more compatible leadout than yet another drama.  On the other hand, Fire has generally been the best overall post-Voice performer, so maybe the network should be less concerned about finding the right show and just make this a home for their most-promising series.

Wednesday –
7:00pm – The Mysteries of Laura (1.19)
8:00pm – Law & Order: SVU (1.63)
9:00pm – Chicago PD (1.59)

Prior to yesterday’s surprising late night renewal of The Mysteries of Laura, I had this pegged as the easiest night to predict.  A new drama fits in at 7:00 and SVU and PD stay put.  I still think that makes the most sense, since Laura, while it draws a fair number of viewers, has dreadful demo ratings and isn’t really bringing anything to the fall schedule.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see it held until midseason, perhaps to fill a slot on Sunday night once the NFL season ends. 

The only potential hiccup to that plan are the ratings from a couple of weeks ago when SVU and PD swapped timeslots for a night during a crossover event with Chicago Fire.  Both shows saw increases of 15-25% on the night with the bigger jump coming for SVU.  It’s likely this was mostly due to the special event nature of the episodes, but it’s possible that both series might be better off in different timeslots, should NBC decide to experiment.

Thursday –
7:00pm – The Biggest Loser (1.20) – The Slap (0.76)
8:00pm – Bad Judge (0.94)/A to Z (0.75) – The Blacklist (2.39)
9:00pm – Parenthood (1.29) – Allegiance (0.86) – The Slap (0.76) – Dateline (1.02)

What an utter disaster of a night Thursday was for NBC.  The network ended up airing 26 hours of sub-1.0 new programming on Thursday nights – a solid quarter of its total output for the night.  Sure, some blame can be put on the competition these shows faced, what with the NFL on CBS during the fall and ABC’s Shonda Rhimes dramas on ABC all year long.  But even that can’t account for how bad this turned out.  Even The Blacklist, which had been performing perfectly fine on Monday nights, sank heavily on Thursday nights, falling as low as a 1.2 rating in recent weeks. 

I don’t know the answer for NBC on Thursday nights in 2015-16.  Presumably they’re going to put in a couple of new dramas (and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chicago Med earn the 9:00pm slot, which was held down for so long by another Chicago hospital show, ER) but I think it’s going to take a lot more than just nibbling around the edges to bring Must See TV back to NBC Thursdays.

Friday –
7:00pm – Dateline (1.19)
8:00pm – Grimm (1.16)
9:00pm – Constantine (0.92)

We’re running on four solid years now of Grimm and Dateline pulling perfectly acceptable ratings on Friday night while nothing else can.  There’s not much else really to say at this point until NBC decides to try something different.  Frankly, I think The Blacklist would actually make for a solid pairing with Grimm, but there’s no chance in hell that NBC sends its top drama and the show to which it gave the post-Super Bowl timeslot to Friday nights.  Odds are, we’ll see some variation of this same schedule next year, just with a new show in place of Constantine

Sunday –
7:00pm – Sunday Night Football (7.30) – Dateline (0.96)
8:00pm – Sunday Night Football (7.30) – A.D. The Bible Continues (1.48)
9:00pm – Sunday Night Football (7.30) – American Odyssey (0.68)

Once again, Sunday Night Football dominates in the fall while everything fails in the spring.  This marks the umpteenth-consecutive year that all scripted programming has failed on Sundays.  In fact, since NBC won the Sunday Night Football contract, no Sunday scripted series has been renewed.  There’s a chance that the network will order more Bible programming, since it’s quite uncommon for network execs to decide not to be in the Mark Burnett business, but clearly something has to change here.  The Apprentice has worked well in the past on Sunday nights, but NBC decided to use it to bridge The Voice this year.  I wish I had a better idea of what they should do, but the problem is the same it’s been for almost a decade: find spring programming that isn’t terrible.  If NBC hasn’t fixed it yet, I don’t know what will work.

NBC is still the two-time reigning ratings champion.  But that title is on very rocky foundation at the moment and they don't seem to have any real strategy beyond just plugging the many holes the schedule currently has.  NBC will walk into upfronts holding the title belt aloft, but don't be surprised if this time next year sees them pinned to the mat.

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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