A Serious Thought About NBC Comedy: It May No Longer Belong On NBC

Analysis: Peacock's hallowed 'Seinfeld' and 'Friends' tradition likelier to find its crowd in emerging venues for the young and/or digitally savvy

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt NBC Netflix

NBC has for the past several seasons offered hints that it’s getting out of the quirky-comedy business, something that has sustained the Peacock from the days of “Seinfeld.” Now it has figured out it can still keep adding to its long line of sitcoms about rich, single city-dwellers – so long as it makes them for someone else.

Kimmy Schmidt may be unbreakable, but tradition, especially in this era of technology disrupting decades of standard operating practice in the media industry, is not. Schmidt is the fictional protagonist of the Tina Fey-led comedy “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” that NBC was supposed to launch sometime in 2015.  Now the show will debut with a two-season guarantee on video-streamer Netflix.  NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt described as a maneuver that will give a worthy comedy more of a chance, which it may not have received on “drama heavy” NBC.

Yet chalking the move up to NBC seeing a better chance for the property elsewhere is easy (especially given the network’s lack of success in launching new funny business on its air in recent seasons).  Less obvious, perhaps, is the sense that what has served NBC well as a comedy archetype for decades – overprivileged hipsters running wild, often in a welcoming metropolis – simply isn’t as palatable to the sorts of broad audiences NBC wants to court as it was in an earlier time.

Consider NBC’s recent spate of comedic stillborns. “The Michael J. Fox Show” centered on a one-time New York newsman. “Sean Saves The World” focused on a single gay father trying to raise a daughter. “A to Z” had two singles meeting cute. The barrister played by Kate Walsh in “Bad Judge” held forth in Los Angeles County Circuit Court. “Animal Practice,” a series about a vet who had to contend with the placement of his ex-girlfriend in his practice, wasn’t on the air long enough for viewers to discover the longer-term romantic entanglements of its characters.

For many years, such stuff was gold. “Friends,” “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld” are the obvious antecedents, but they helped support comedies with similar themes like “Boston Common” (about a Virginia twentysomething who moves to Boston); “Caroline in the City” (about the travails of a New York City cartoonist); “Suddenly Susan” (a San Francisco writer must adjust to being single); “The Single Guy” (about a struggling New York City writer); and “Coupling”   (a remake of a British comedy about being single).Earlier this decade, however, the network found the winds flagging.  Both “30 Rock” and “The Office” captured the fancy of a fervent fan base, and rightfully so. The former’s knowing nods to the real-life ups and downs of the media business made it an instant hit among industry insiders. And the latter’s quirky humor and roots in British comedy rendered it a favorite among a certain niche.  Both series played well with a certain highly-educated, high-income slice of the population and NBC was able to command high ad prices for the programs, until they started to mature.

When NBC announced the final season of “30 Rock,” executives made it seem as if the network’s talent for comedy-for-the-upscale was something better seen in the rear-view mirror.  In announcing its slate for the fall of 2013, NBC seemed happy to be giving Fey’s masterwork a proper send-off, while moving the even quirkier “Community” to Fridays. Meantime, they cheered the ability of the producers of “Parks and Recreation” to develop broader humor and storylines.

The sense one gets from watching TV today is that bigger audiences like shows about people in different circumstances. The folks in “Modern Family” are clearly urban dwellers, but they seem to thrive in a smaller town or suburb. The family in ABC’s durable “The Middle” hails from the fictional town of Orson, Indiana. “Mike & Molly” are Chicago natives, but certainly don’t lead lives as frenzied as the folks from “30 Rock.”

Advertisers are putting more money into down-homier fare. The average cost of a 30-second spot in “The Middle” this season was $131,021, according to a Variety survey of TV ad prices. The cost of a similar ad in “A to Z”? $91,580.

The market for NBC’s brand of comedy (and, yes, several of the aforementioned programs were only aired by NBC, not produced by the company) seems to have grown more niche. Little wonder that “Mulaney,” “The Mindy Project” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” – all productions of NBCUniversal’s Universal Television – have found their way to rival Fox, which specializes in catering to an audience that is slightly younger and more male. A comedy from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock seems likely to gain an audience on a service with subscribers who are a) savvy enough to latch on the practice of watching original content via video streaming and b) have enough disposable income to do so.

TV networks can’t just simply throw stuff at the wall any more to discover what sticks. The rise of umpteen cable networks and a phalanx of video-streaming options means the creation of very particular audiences around very specific video-consumption experiences. “Mad Men” airing on ABC would likely be a disaster, as would “Nashville” being unspooled on AMC.  Executives have to be more conscious these days of marrying the right program to the right viewing experience.

Some of NBC’s comedies are legendary, and the company may strike gold once again.  The likelihood is increasing, however, that its success with funny stuff may come by not putting much of it on its own air.