How to make sense of NBC’s fall sked (including ‘Rock Center’ on Thursday)

It’s tempting to interpret the surprise move of ABC vet Jeff Bader to sked-guru duties at NBC as a no-confidence vote in the Peacock’s 2012-13 fall schedule. NBC_logo 

Perhaps he’ll be called on to revisit some of the decisions NBC made back in May as to where its shows would be scheduled, which prompted much head-scratching. Chief among the questionable shifts was the stunning placement of newsmagazine “Rock Center with Brian Williams” on Thursday at 10 p.m., a time slot historically devoted to some of the best scripted dramas the Peacock has to offer. Then there was the scattering of four different comedy blocks across the week, a ballsy move considering half-hours in primetime are typically protected with a care and tenderness usually devoted to baby chicks.

No doubt Bader’s first impulse will be to rearrange that grid of colored tiles scheduling people use to plan primetime with the ferocity of Edward Scissorhands. But there is a logic to NBC’s plan he’ll need to understand first.

The operative word here is “flow,” that mysterious force that supposedly compels an audience to move from one time slot to another. NBC is taking that concept very seriously this year, looking at each night in a consecutive, linear fashion reminiscent of the way a batting order is designed to move runners around the bases. The Sunday audience needs to be induced to return on Monday, which feeds into Tuesday, etc.

With that metaphor in mind, here’s the key to understanding NBC in the fall: Sunday-Tuesday is the top of the order, a lineup frontloaded to drive in runs. Wednesday-Friday…not so much, which is why it is littered with comedies NBC has given up on and a newsmagazine with no hope of amassing significant ratings.

Peacock’s prime directive was to start where the audience already is and attempt to circulate those viewers to the time slots in closest proximity. That means Job 1 is moving the 20 million-plus who tune into “Sunday Night Football” in the fall to the programming on the very next nights.

Football needs to be an effective promotional platform for the network’s most valuable entertainment asset, “The Voice,” which will be making its fall debut on Monday and Tuesday. The combination of these two in turn must drive sampling to the new programs on both nights: “Revolution” at Monday 10 p.m., and the comedy pairing of “Go On” and “The New Normal” at Tuesday 9 p.m.

If there was any doubt as to what new programming NBC considers its top priorities, it is the shows scheduled Sunday-Tuesday. This is the nucleus of the schedule, which might seem a little counterintuitive given Thursday has traditionally been NBC’s launch pad.

But here’s the dirty little secret that no one at NBC is going to be caught dead publicly admitting: Thursday, the night that has represented the cream of the network’s crop going back decades, is now essentially fallow ground. Heresy? Yes, but NBC’s Thursday planning speaks for itself. It’s where a rotation of returning comedies the network has already deemed too narrow in their sophisticated wit will live out the remainder of their days, too weak to support the launch of any new half-hours.

When you come to terms with the fact that NBC has essentially shifted its traditional focus from the back half of the week to the front, then the scheduling of “Center” starts to make sense. By the time Thursday rolls around, there is no momentum left in the audience flow over the course of the week to keep moving to that night’s comedies, let alone the hour that follows them.

NBC learned that the hard way last season, when three different scripted hours the network had high hopes for–“Prime Suspect,” “The Firm” and “Awake”–were all eaten alive Thursday at 10 p.m., and in a time slot that’s not even nearly as competitive as it used to be. And so despite the fact NBC once put iconic shows like “L.A. Law” and “ER” to the time slot, the network isn’t about to send another scripted hour in at 10 p.m. to get killed. So let the nice news people hang their hats there rather than disrupt the precious flow the Peacock wants in the first half of the week.

The farther away shows are from Sunday-Tuesday, the less they matter to NBC in the fall. If Thursday feels neglected, Friday is an even bigger afterthought. That’s why “Community” and “Whitney” are there, shots in the dark on a night notorious for launching new programming. Somehow NBC defied that gravity at 9 p.m. with “Grimm,” which had a modestly successful rookie season in that time slot. My guess is there was a hearty debate over whether the network should move that series to a night earlier in the week to hopefully grow further. But if there is one philosophy that trumps flow, it is a more instinctive truism: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (“Grimm” will also get some early season exposure on Monday.)

So that’s the fall sked for you. Don’t expect NBC to hang an “Out to Lunch” sign on Wednesday-Friday, but that’s basically what’s going on here. Only when the network has improved circulation in that Sunday-Tuesday cluster will they be able to invest more elsewhere in the week.