NBC’s slow-burner success

Scheduling, show's quality teamed to make 'Parenthood' a winner

If anything positive came out of the “The Jay Leno Show” fiasco on NBC, it was “Parenthood.”

Having to fill the 10 p.m. timeslots when “Leno” left primetime in early February, the Peacock skedded the smallscreen adaptation of the 1989 Ron Howard film on Tuesdays following its coverage of the Winter Olympics. After a decent ratings start and typical decline in subsequent weeks, it appeared to be the latest critically admired, albeit ratings-challenged skein.

But a funny thing happened over the next couple of months: At a time of year when daylight saving time and other spring distractions conspire to lower ratings for most shows, “Parenthood” edged up. And by April, it was consistently beating CBS’ fellow rookie “The Good Wife” among adults under 50.

Now, as it prepares for its second season this fall (where it will again face “The Good Wife”), it does so as one of the few returning NBC scripted skeins with ratings momentum.

At least some of “Parenthood’s” success can be attributed to its scheduling. By following the same show — the potent “Biggest Loser” reality skein — for 13 weeks without repeats, it was able to establish and then build a core audience. This is an advantage midseason shows often have, as they compete with series that must space out 20-odd original episodes over a 36-week period.

It’s also a programming strategy the networks may want to consider more often, although the series has to be of high quality in order for the strategy to pay off. For every midseason success of a “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Parenthood,” there’s a “Cashmere Mafia” or “Harper’s Island.”

Repeats are a hard reality for networks. Financially, it’s more advantageous for nets to sked reruns, while accepting the fact ratings will decline and competitors might seize the initiative; the original-episode hiatus for “The Good Wife” in early spring — it had a stretch of four repeats over five weeks — allowed “Parenthood” to catch up in the demo race and eventually pass the CBS drama in by season’s end.

“Parenthood” averaged a 3.4 rating/9 share in adults 18-49 and 8.1 million viewers overall for its 13 episodes. In their head-to-head season finales in May, “Parenthood” beat “Good Wife” by half a ratings point in 18-49 while the shows tied in adults 25-54. “Good Wife” dominated in total viewers.

“When you do have a new show (like “Good Wife”) doing well, you still want to have it on in repeats,” one network programmer says, “but it is tougher to come back when you’ve been off a few weeks.”

Mitch Metcalf, programming topper at NBC, says there are no simple answers about programming during a hiatus of original episodes.

“Maybe it’s better to try another show than to do two new episodes, be off, then on, and then a few more repeats,” he explains. “The scattershot approach may do a disservice to the core audience that got you there in the first place. The key is being clear with the audience that if the show goes off for five or six weeks, let them know when it will return.”

Scheduling something completely new during an original-episode hiatus may be difficult to pull off. While series with short orders can often perform admirably in the summer, it’s a trickier task from September to May, and it can also be hard to sell a six-episode show overseas. When examining the bottom line, coin spent for production and marketing on a new series is high risk compared with showing repeats of episodes already paid for.

One benefit that worked to “Parenthood’s” advantage was that although the show is serialized, unlike “Lost” or “24” it wasn’t difficult for viewers to catch up on the storyline.

“The show felt eminently joinable,” says Metcalf. “You could come in as easily in episode six as in episode one.”

“Parenthood” showrunner Jason Katims says he heard from many viewers who came aboard a few episodes after the pilot and stayed for the entire season.

“I had so many people come up to me from about five to seven episodes in and say, ‘This is one of my favorite shows.’ They found it, and that’s when we felt we were really building momentum,” Katims says.

“Parenthood” was supposed to launch in September with a full 22-episode order, but because of the cancer diagnosis for original co-star Maura Tierney — who had to drop out and was replaced by Lauren Graham — the order was shortened to 13 and the show ended up premiering six months later. Most of the episodes were written by Katims and his staff before the March 2 preem, without any audience feedback at the time.

Next year, “Parenthood” will face the same dilemma “The Good Wife” did this season. With roughly 22 episodes spread out over 36 weeks, Peacock execs will have to figure out a way to keep viewers from changing channels when no originals air.

The extra episodes are a blessing and a curse for Katims, who has had to produce only 13 episodes of “Friday Night Lights” for the past two years, as well as an upcoming fifth season. He says that quantity makes both writing and production more manageable.

“I’ve gotten used to that number, and I like it,” he says.

With both “The Good Wife” and “Parenthood” skewing female, ABC is counterprogramming the 10 p.m. timeslot with “Detroit 1-8-7,” a cop drama shot documentary style starring Michael Imperioli. The Alphabet is figuring it may be able to draw male viewers looking for something else besides the current options.

With cops trying to help sustain a decaying city, lawyers looking to exonerate known criminals and parents aiming to balance the everyday chaos that life hands them, on Tuesdays at 10, at least the Big Three have a little something for everyone.

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