NBC Must Find Its ‘Voice’ to Support New Shows

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The Peacock ran with the ball early this season, but its turnaround depends on more consistency

This season has been an extended roller-coaster ride for NBC, which surged in the fall, sank in the winter, and then slowed its rate of descent by spring, as the end of the line approached.

The monster combination of the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” and “The Voice” made it the surprise early ratings leader, but NBC crumbled without either of them in January. When the dust settles on this season, the Peacock will finish third among young adults and will have added a few new pieces — but it still has a long way to go.

NBC certainly needs to have more success in the scripted arena, as it hasn’t fielded a sustained comedy or drama hit since “The Office” came along in 2004. And the Dunder Mifflin gang is clocking out at the end of the season.

As it takes stock of this season, NBC can point to “Revolution” as a solid frosh scripted entry and the sparks thrown off in recent weeks by “Chicago Fire.” Those two building blocks should help the network’s cause in the fall. “Parenthood” showed surprising resilience in its fourth season — enough to secure it a fifth year. That trio of dramas plus the NFL boost means NBC may not add too many new shows for the fall. The Peacock has the Winter Olympics for 17 nights in February, so it can strategically promote and target specific shows for midseason.

As the first of the Big Four to present its sked during the broadcasters’ upfront week, which runs May 13-16, NBC doesn’t have the luxury of seeing its rivals’ moves, including whether CBS or Fox (or both) will switch to comedy in Thursday’s 9 o’clock hour. Thus the Peacock has to focus squarely on putting its shows in the best possible slots to succeed. And that starts, of course, with “The Voice.”

NBC’s most promising new drama should again be slotted after the music contest on Monday, where it will get a first-place lead-in as well as plenty of promotion during football. The net coddled “Revolution” this season by not letting it air without “The Voice” behind it, and it could return Mondays at 10, but by now the post-apocalyptic drama should be asked to fly on its own. (You couldn’t blame NBC for being a little gun-shy, though, after other post-“Voice” shows “Smash” and “Go On” withered without that lead-in support.)

NBC needs to strike while its singing competish is hot and give as many new shows as possible the advantage of a lead-in that’s as strong as there is these days. Tuesday after “The Voice” seems like a natural spot for the new, still-untitled Michael J. Fox comedy, which has a 22-episode commitment from the net.

Depending on how strong its laffers look, NBC could pair the Fox sitcom with either Go On or another newbie, perhaps something like the Jason Katims series “About a Boy.” “Revolution” could slide over to Tuesday and close the night, giving the net a promotable Monday-Tuesday combo on the heels of Sunday football.

Wednesday shouldn’t need as much promotional support, with “Law & Order: SVU” and “Chicago Fire” returning. The unsung “Parenthood” might be a good choice to open the night.

Thursday’s a tough nut for NBC, which tumbled by 25% in adults 18-49 on the night this season, and is closer to fifthplace CW than it is to third-place ABC. And now it’s losing top show “The Office.”

Given its limited comedy roster and the uncertainty of rivals’ Thursday strategies, NBC could switch to reality shows or perhaps opt for a lineup that keeps some comedy on the night but also heads the net in a new direction.

One dark-horse possibility would be to open with “Parks & Recreation” and a new comedy, with the latter likely going up against something new itself on CBS. Then from 9 to 11, NBC could get creepy with a pairing of “Grimm” and “Hannibal.”

“Hannibal” has dropped in recent weeks Thursday at 10, but “Grimm” would be a clear alternative at 9 while providing a suitable lead-in for the Bryan Fuller series. (NBC in May is testing Friday success “Grimm” on Tuesdays to see how it fares in a more highly trafficked timeslot.)

Newsmags “Rock Center” and “Dateline” make sense as a back-to-back pairing on Friday, but there is an opening for a youngish-skewing drama at 10.

As for cult-fave but ratings-challenged comedy “Community,” it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it return for a shortened final run a la this season’s “30 Rock.”

Overall, NBC comes out of this topsy-turvy season with some groundwork laid on the refurbishment of its primetime sked.

But to really turn things around, it has to do a better job in the upcoming season of building on the strong foundation provided by “The Voice” and the NFL.

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  1. Nero theTVFiddler says:

    Good analysis Rick regarding NBC’s fall strategy. You had some ideas that I hadn’t considered. If NBC decides to abandon comedies on Thursday night – wow. That’s almost unthinkable. When was the last time NBC didn’t have comedies on Thursday night? 1980-81 season when NBC programmed ‘Games People Play’ and the NBC Thursday Night Movie.

    Whenever I think of NBC programming of the Primetime schedule, I always think of Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff. I think of the challenge they faced at NBC back in the early 1980s. Their strategy was to build around quality shows, hour by hour, night by night; but I also recall reading that they didn’t want to run from a fight. If a night was important to them, they scheduled that night as strong as they could, regardless of the competition coming from CBS or ABC.

    I’ve always believed Thursday nights are the most critical of the week, followed by Sunday nights. NBC must fight for every viewer on Thursday night – they can’t back down. I think the Michael J Fox show is strong enough to lead off Thursday at 8pm, and then place Park & Rec at 9pm, and Revolution at 10pm. That is a high risk move, but it also provides NBC with some stability and a place to then schedule their two best comedy pilots [after the Fox pilot] at 8:30 and 9:30. NBC must go ‘all in’ and battle with their best on Thursday nights. If NBC still feels ‘Go On’ has a good future, I’d place that returning series in the 9:30 slot.

    I agree completely with your strategy of placing new promising series behind the Voice lead-in. That is a *must* for NBC – they need to run as many new series as possible in those slots behind Voice to try to catch the ‘halo effect’ before Voice begins the inevitable cooling off phase. It is a risk to not schedule Revolution behind Voice at either Monday or Tuesday, but NBC is at a point where they need to take some smart, calculated risks that can help build momentum during the 2013-14 season.

  2. NBC need to look at the two best comedies they have right now Parks and Rec and The Office. The faux documentary works. Perhaps they look at another comedy in that frame perhaps do one on the behind the scenes of a reality show.

  3. R.S. Dew says:

    NBC has been playing defensive programming since before the last Writer’s Strike. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were using a programming algorithm to position new material, rather than any kind of sense. Positioning Hannibal at 10pm as their Thursday night anchor after an all-comedy evening of programming is unfathomable. Who makes that kind of decision? Airing a prime-time sudser like Deception directly after family-friendly Biggest Loser? What kind of person does that and expects a show to succeed?

    The NBC decision-makers, instead of looking at how their own programming works together to form a cohesive viewing block, to keep their viewers from changing the channel, is nervously trying to pit their shows against what other networks are airing from hour-to-hour. It’s sad.

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