Comedy show has acclaim and an audience

The Peacock may have plenty of primetime problems, but “30 Rock” is no longer one of them.

A sizable favorite to bag a third straight comedy Emmy this fall, the ensemble laffer starring Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey is riding its first real wave of Nielsen momentum. It has meshed well with lead-in “The Office,” and is enjoying its highest-rated season to date.

In making some ratings strides, “30 Rock” appears to have broken free of the “Arrested Development” syndrome: That Fox comedy from earlier this decade also collected numerous awards and critical acclaim but never generated much of an audience.

Sure, NBC’s patience — something every network preaches but seldom practices — has been important, but timing also plays a key role.

First, NBC was uniquely positioned to take advantage of star Tina Fey’s ability to channel Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin during the presidential election, stunting her in numerous “Saturday Night Live”-branded primetime specials that eventually helped “30 Rock” begin to roll.

Also, unlike Fox with “Arrested Development,” the Peacock has been able to lead into “30 Rock” with another hot comedy that hassimilar sensibilities: “The Office.” By pairing them regularly for the first time this season, the network has formed one of the top weekly comedy hours for any network.

And it also helps that after years of nothing but crime dramas and reality shows dominating the primetime rating race, auds seem to be looking for laughs in these trying times.

Indeed, in a challenging environment for any broadcast program, the half-hour comedy has held up pretty well this season. NBC’s “Office”-“30 Rock” comedy combo has grown, while CBS has seen improved numbers for its Monday trio of “The Big Bang Theory,” “How I Met Your Mother” and “Two and a Half Men.”

Looking at the numbers, “30 Rock” this season is averaging a 3.7 rating/9 share in adults 18-49 this season and 7.7 million viewers overall, according to Nielsen estimates that include same-week DVR playback through mid-March.

While still not a broad draw — its total-viewer figures aren’t padded by too many viewers under 18 or 50-plus — “30 Rock” has recruited lots of new viewers this season, primarily by connecting better with the younger half of the 18-49 demo.

Its original episodes are up 21% vs. last season in adults 18-49 (4.0 vs. 3.3); better still, they have risen by 34% in adults 18-34 (4.3 vs. 3.2). “30 Rock” is the season’s No. 32 program overall in 18-49 and No. 7 comedy (after ranking 38th and 10th, respectively, a year ago).

“The Office” is also enjoying its highest-rated season to date, standing as the No. 2 half-hour comedy in 18-49 (behind “Two and a Half Men”) and No. 1 in adults 18-34.

But if “The Office” has a tough task in recruiting viewers to NBC at 9 p.m. with virtually no lead-in support (the net’s 8:30 comedy “Kath & Kim” was a bust), “30 Rock” has been assigned an arguably tougher task. Though it benefits from a strong lead-in, its competition just happens to be the highest-rated half-hour of the week for both ABC (the second half of “Grey’s Anatomy”) and CBS (the second half of “CSI”).

It’s not just airing behind “The Office” that has enabled “30 Rock” to garner higher ratings. Last season, in its three airings at 9:30 behind “The Office,” “30 Rock” actually delivered lower numbers than when it aired at 8:30 behind “My Name Is Earl.”

It hasn’t been any easier for other 9:30 comedies to hold onto the audience of the higher-rated laffer that precedes it. “30 Rock’s” roughly 78% retention of “The Office” in 18-49 is higher than that for both “American Dad” behind “Family Guy” on Fox’s Sunday and the combo of “Worst Week” and “Rules of Engagement” behind “Two and a Half Men” on CBS Monday.

Another plus for “30 Rock” is that it is one of the most upscale programs on television. It indexes at a 142 among households with income of $100,000 or more, meaning it’s 42% more likely than a typical primetime program to attract such high-income viewers.

Looking ahead, NBC hopes to plant another comedy seed this week with the premiere of Amy Poehler laffer “Parks and Recreation,” a single-camera comedy done in the mockumentary style of “The Office.” It figures to be a tough sell out of the gate, but as part of a growing laffer lineup, at least it has some fertile soil in which to bloom.

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