Net learns from trying to reinstate four-comedy Thursday lineup

At least for the fall, NBC’s resurrection of its venerable “Must See” Thursday-night comedy lineup will remain a “wait-and-see” proposition.

Buoyed by the surprise success of frosh laffer “My Name Is Earl” and the growing results for cult hit “The Office,” NBC reinstated its four-comedy Thursday lineup in January.

“Earl” and “The Office” shifted from Tuesday to Thursday, and the initial results were strong.

As a result, buzz grew that NBC would sked “Earl” at 8 and “The Office” at 9 for the fall — with perhaps “Scrubs” and a new comedy in the 8:30 and 9:30 slots.

But by the end of the season, “Earl” and “Office” settled into numbers on the night that underperformed what “The Apprentice” had been pulling there before the reality skein was moved to Mondays.

As a result, this fall “Earl” and “The Office” will air starting at 8 p.m., leading into gamer hit “Deal or No Deal.” (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” originally slated for 9, will instead air on Mondays.)

“We tried (four comedies) last year, and the reality of it is, comedy has always been fragile, and the audience right now is not patient with comedy,” says NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly. “It’s harder to lure them with comedies and get them to stick with it.”

For the Peacock, this is only the latest setback in its attempt to resurrect what is perhaps the most successful and enduring comedy block in TV history.

Not too long ago, NBC’s Thursday night boast wasn’t much of a stretch. When viewers tuned in for “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “ER” — critical and commercial smashes — the slogan meant something. Even middling skeins like “Veronica’s Closet” and “Suddenly Susan” pulled ratings that Peacock execs would now kill for.

The strength of NBC’s comedy bench led the net to schedule an unprecedented 18 comedies in fall 1997 — four on every weeknight, plus two on Sunday.

In hindsight, that was probably the height of the “Must-See TV” phenomenon. But the Peacock got greedy. Suddenly, “Must See TV” didn’t just stand for the net’s Thursday sked — NBC applied the moniker to its entire stable of sitcoms.

That marketing ploy ultimately diluted the brand. Was “Caroline in the City” really appointment television?

One by one, the net’s hit (and semi-hit) laffers departed the airwaves. “Seinfeld.” “Mad About You.” “Just Shoot Me.” “3rd Rock From the Sun.” “Friends.” “Frasier.” And most recently, “Will & Grace.”

NBC’s Thursday-night schedule — so untouchable in the late 1990s that rivals didn’t even make much of an attempt to compete — became vulnerable. CBS exploited that opening in January 2001, when it moved new hits “Survivor” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” up against the Peacock’s fading night.

The net lost ground on Thursdays — long a critical night for ad sales, as marketers (particularly movie companies) looked to reach young adults before the weekend. With CBS suddenly in play for those adult 18-49 dollars, the Peacock blinked.

In 2004, NBC did what would have been unthinkable just a few years before: It dumped its four-comedy “Must See” lineup.

With “Friends” retiring, and “Will & Grace” hemorrhaging viewers, NBC looked to maintain its major presence on the night by parking the reality phenom “The Apprentice” there.

“The Apprentice” helped stop the bleeding — temporarily. By last fall, it was apparent that the Donald Trump smash had been downgraded to a decent, but unspectacular, performer.

At this point, there’s no guarantee that turning Thursday back into a four-comedy home is a priority at the Peacock. For starters, the competition — with ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” moving to the night — is tougher than ever.

Plus, with the comedy form still not easily resonating with viewers, two-hour comedy blocks are rare across the board. Fox and the CW have slated four laffers on Sunday, while CBS still maintains a quartet of comedies on Monday — but those are the only examples.

“We had comedy we liked, but it’s a challenge,” admits Reilly. “It’s so vulnerable to go with a four-comedy strategy (on Thursday night) …. You have to shelter comedy to grow it. We don’t have many opportunities to do that.”

For now, that means NBC will bulk up on hourlongs, he says. To nurture comedies, you need to first nurture some hits — any kind of hits, Reilly reasons.

“If you’ve got the hits, then you can maneuver,” he says. “But we need to bulk up the schedule — we have quite a few holes to fill. And you just can’t launch that many shows.”

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