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Perplexed Peacock

NBC's timeslot shuffles haven't made life easier for 'Scrubs'

Here’s how bad things have been for “Scrubs”: NBC’s own ads for the show concede the net basically forgot about it.

In an unusually candid admission of guilt, Peacock’s promo meisters last month aired a clever (but telling) spot featuring a bunch of dead bodies in a hospital morgue. “Thought ‘Scrubs’ was dead?” the promo asked, before informing viewers the show would be returning to Tuesday nights in January.

Some producers might have been offended by such a spot, but “Scrubs” creator Bill Lawrence said he actually took it as an apology of sorts.

“It felt respectful. It made me laugh,” he says. “They sort of acknowledged, ‘Yeah, we kind of screwed this show over.’ ”

That’s putting it mildly.

Despite its status as one of the most critically hailed comedies of the past five years, as well as claiming a very strong launch in 2001, NBC has never really known what to do with “Scrubs.”

“We like to say it feels like we’ve had eight or nine timeslots in a little over four years,” Lawrence says, even though he knows the show has actually only aired regularly on two nights. “It’s a harsh reality when you find even your fans are asking when you’re on.”

During its first season, “Scrubs” aired Tuesdays at 9:30, a companion to “Frasier.” Solid ratings and even better reviews prompted then-NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker to move the show to Thursdays at 8:30 after “Friends,” making it a part of NBC’s still-mighty (at the time) lineup of “Must-See TV” laffers.

So far, so good.

“Back then, ‘Friends’ was a juggernaut, and we didn’t retain enough of (their) audience,” Lawrence explains. “So every time a sweeps period came around, suddenly there’d be an hour of ‘Friends,’ and ‘Scrubs’ would be preempted.”

In other words, at a time when “Scrubs” needed stability to help it grow from a solid success into a super hit, NBC was impatient. Not trusting auds would ever flock to the show in big numbers, “Scrubs” became a utility player for the net, filling holes when and wherever it was needed.

Season three saw the skein shifting to Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. in the fall of 2003, opposite CBS’ megahit “CSI.” When NBC needed to find a regular slot for new reality hit “The Apprentice” in January 2004, “Scrubs” was shuffled off again — back to Tuesday nights, this time at 8:30 p.m. — directly opposite Fox’s megahit “American Idol.”

A few months later, in fall 2004, “Scrubs” stayed on Tuesdays but began the season airing at 9:30 p.m. Its new lead-in? “Father of the Pride,” the family friendly animated laffer that quickly struck out. By the spring of last year, “Scrubs” had moved to 9 p.m. Tuesday, where NBC used it to help launch “The Office.”

Lawrence might not like the way NBC has treated “Scrubs” over the years, but he says he understands why the net did what it did.

The Peacock felt its grasp on first place slipping away, and it wanted to hold on to the Nielsen crown for as long as possible, he says. Rather than give viewers time to find “Scrubs,” NBC brass wanted to maximize ratings and profits.

“The thinking was to stay on top as long as possible,” he says. “If you think about all the money they made by staying in first place as long as they did, it’s a tidy sum.”

It didn’t help matters that “Scrubs” was not owned by NBC but rather Disney’s Touchstone Television. “They didn’t stand to make a huge profit in syndication from us,” Lawrence says.

That said, even Lawrence cringed when NBC said “Scrubs” wouldn’t be on the net’s fall 2005 sked. After four seasons of constant shuffling, the net had finally given the show the worst timeslot possible: none at all.

“We all felt a little dissed, as I’m sure the fans did,” series star Zach Braff said in a video post to his online blog last fall, comments he repeated last month in interviews with reporters.

Despite years of schizophrenic treatment from NBC, “Scrubs” has actually ended up luckier than many critical darlings with similar ratings tracks. ABC killed Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” after two seasons, while Fox’s “Arrested Development” is clinging to life after eking out a little more than 50 episodes over three seasons.

What’s more, Lawrence is now optimistic that “Scrubs” could actually return for a sixth season. Skein popped back on to NBC’s sked this month, with the net airing two episodes weekly from 9-10 p.m. Tuesdays, and ratings have been solid.

And even with new hits “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office,” Lawrence figures that, unless every one of NBC’s midseason comedies work, the net will need “Scrubs” to help anchor a second comedy block outside of Thursdays. Indeed, even if NBC passes, ABC topper Steve McPherson — who developed “Scrubs” while running Touchstone — has indicated he’d buy the show for the Alphabet.

“I would bet money that we’ll be on a sixth season,” he forecasts. “The one thing I’ve always felt, except when I was at my most bitter, is that NBC always considered us an asset.”

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