Network struggles to get back into ratings race

Is NBC the network of “Howie Do It” and “Kath & Kim” or “Friday Night Lights” and “The Office?”

As the Peacock searches for reasons why it appears destined for yet another fourth-place finish this season, it might start with the need to crystallize an identity.

A primetime powerhouse and home to the preeminent scripted brand in television as recently as six or seven years ago, NBC has fallen off badly in recent years. And its biggest sin is perhaps that it’s all over the map, both creatively and qualitatively.

Sure, there should be room for a variety of storytelling forms on any broadcaster, but it’s hard to remember a network that jumps so schizophrenically one hour or night to the next.

The schlocky and derivative likes of remake drama “Knight Rider” and dating reality show “Momma’s Boys” share sked space on a lineup that includes quality skeins like “Chuck,” “Friday Night Lights” and “The Office.”

The Peacock ceded its upscale brand to ABC in recent years, and has been rudderless ever since. Should it focus more on single-camera comedy a la “The Office” and “30 Rock”? Should it go more male to complement “Sunday Night Football” and “Heroes?” Or should it veer toward character-driven drama like “Friday Night Lights” and “Lipstick Jungle?”

But even answering these questions won’t solve all of NBC’s problems.

The network’s plan to prep series sans pilots was a big flop in the fall, and none of its new shows, including the high-profile “My Own Worst Enemy,” seemed to have a chance from the start. Also contributing to a sense of turmoil are recent programming moves like cutting orders on some series, shifting its biggest hope for spring (“Kings”) to a less desirable night, and then adding three episodes of “ER” just two months before its planned finale.

There’s also the surprising decision to strip Jay Leno across the weeknight sked at 10 o’clock beginning next fall. While this may be a decent move for NBC at this time — especially from an economic standpoint — it seemingly takes the net out of the mix for some of the smart, adult dramas that have been its trademark in the past.

NBC might have been better off opting to air Leno on one, two or three nights a week at 10 o’clock.

Overall, NBC is neck and neck with ABC for third place at the halfway point of the season — despite airing just three of the season’s top 20 entertainment series in adults 18-49, according to Nielsen.

“Sunday Night Football” pumped the Peacock’s fourth-quarter averages, and the net will also get a significant boost from the Super Bowl, which it hopes can shine a spotlight on some of its new and current series.

Here’s a look at NBC at midseason:

WHAT SMOKES: “The Office,” consistently TV’s funniest half-hour, is a top-10 show in key demos — despite going up against the top-rated program on both ABC (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and CBS (“CSI”). “Heroes” remains a good performer too, although it has fallen off sharply from two years ago when it looked to be a megahit.

NBC also has a pair of shows — “30 Rock” and “Biggest Loser” — that are showing some growth a few years into their run. Both of these skew young, too, and are reasons why the net is No. 2 among adults 18-34.

In fact, zeroing in on a younger aud at a time when its rivals are getting older might be a smart strategy as the net aims to reimagine itself in the coming year.

WHAT CHOKES: Among its shortcomings is the lack of a signature drama, especially now that “Heroes” is declining and “ER” is exiting.

“Law & Order: SVU” continues to win its Tuesday slot despite declines, but it’s time for the original “Law & Order” to call it quits. The 10 o’clock slots are disappearing, and any earlier time period would be taking away a home for a potential future hit.

It has been a brutal year for new NBC offerings, and it doesn’t appear that “Kings,” bowing in March, is its answer. The contemporary retelling of David and Goliath seems to have fallen out of favor at the network after initially being targeted to replace “ER” on Thursdays at 10. Now, it’s headed for the tough 8 p.m. Sunday slot — at the outset of daylight savings time, no less.

BIGGEST MIDSEASON HOPE: Aside from better ratings for “Friday Night Lights,” “Life” and “30 Rock,” it’s new John Wells cop drama “Southland.” Although it doesn’t figure to be a breakout smash, it could fare decently in the old “ER” timeslot.

There’s also Amy Poehler’s still untitled (that can’t be a good sign) mockumentary half-hour about local government, but NBC would be wise to keep its expectations low here.

BIGGEST NEED: Many areas need addressing, but the network of “Frasier” and “Seinfeld” may be best off building the sked one half-hour brick at a time.

While it enjoys success with “The Office” and does modest biz with “My Name Is Earl” and “30 Rock,” what NBC really needs is a multicamera, audience-pleasing comedy.

It wasn’t so long ago that “Friends” was the No. 1 show on television, and there’s no reason NBC can’t tap into the zeitgeist and find a comedy with young-adult appeal that’s smart yet broader and more relatable than most of its recent efforts.

If it needs a template, the Peacock need look no further than to CBS, whose hits “Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother” would likely fare even better on NBC.

BOTTOM LINE: The Super Bowl will make it more competitive in the season standings, but it’s hard to imagine NBC not finishing fourth once again.

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