NBC's midseason schedule release generated all kinds of sound and fury, signifiying ... what?
Rarely has the cosmic dissonance between the taste of the people I hang with online and the taste of mainstream America been so electrically boogalooed as it was Monday, when my Twitter and Google Reader feeds exploded with "What are they thinking?" posts directed at NBC for its plan to place on hiatus in January a show that about 295 million Americans choose not to watch each week, "Community."
It underscored the narrow crevice NBC finds itself in — Aron Ralston had an easier time escaping his predicament. The Peacock has such a small fanbase, and yet the only way to have a larger one may start with turning its back on those core viewers — including me.
Keep in mind that the midseason fate of "Community" was mostly written in week one of the 2011-12 TV season, when "Whitney" and "Up All Night" opened strong (by current NBC standards) but "Free Agents" did not. That meant, if NBC retained the same six comedy slots at midseason (two on Wednesday, four on Thursday), that at least one show would have to be sidelined to make room for the return of "30 Rock," as well as the intended premieres of "Are You There, Chelsea?" and, at the time, "Bent." "Whitney" and "Up All NIght" pushed "Community" close to the chopping block, where it would be jockeying for safety with the one show arguably more beloved by fans of NBC Thursdays, "Parks and Recreation."
"Community" hasn't been canceled, and in fact, there's no expectation that its remaining third-season episodes won't air sometime in 2011-12. But having not broken 4 million overall viewers since March and having actually shed audience from its first season in 2009-10, when it averaged more than 5 million, "Community" has been living on time borrowed from NBC's ongoing ratings struggles. It's truly an underdog show (which, for what it's worth, absolutely fits its creative sensibility).
So it's all well and good to seethe that creatively inferior shows will displace superior ones, but it doesn't erase the central question: What is NBC supposed to do?
Bob Greenblatt and Co. can tinker, tailor, soldier and spy their schedule all night long, but this is a network that won't solve its fundamental crisis unless one of three things happen:
Solution No. 1: A new "ER" or "Friends" appears — a series that melds critical and popular success so strongly from the very first episode that it begins revitalizing the network both as a destination and as a promotional vehicle.
Problem: "ER" and "Friends" premiered in 1994, and while NBC wasn't No. 1 in primetime, it was strong. If shows of that caliber came around again, it would certainly be a positive step, but it's not clear that either of them would break out anything like what happened 17 years ago.
Solution No. 2: NBC embraces its existing creative strengths but reinvents and expands its marketing in a no-holds-barred manner, failing to rest until it throttles 10 million Americans into appreciating what the network is offering.
Problem: While it appeals to my frustration over how few people watch some of the best shows on TV, this solution butts against reality, as well as certain civil liberties legistlation.
Solution No. 3: Build from without: The network revamps its schedule to put on the broadest appeal programming, regardless of creative merits, to increase its audience base — then reverts back to the best and the brightest shows but with better options to launch them.
Problem: Requires more staffing at TV viewer metaphorical suicide hotlines, as evidenced by even the threat that "Community" will be a casualty of this strategy.
Again, what is NBC supposed to do?
What you realize is that Solution No. 3 is actually a Trojan Horse version of Solution No. 1. The strategy is premised upon an idea that the right show (right, in this case, being a show of broad appeal) will bring viewers to your network regardless of what else they watch, and you could cite both "Sunday Night Football" and springtime reality hit "The Voice" as evidence. Other than both being a form of competition, those two programming pieces could hardly have less to do with each other. But if "Community" had the ratings of "The Voice," we'd be planning to watch the irrepressible Danny Pudi and Donald Glover reenact "Star Wars" scenes for their grandkids.
Does that mean that a clever scripted show can't duplicate the success of something more on-the-nose like football or advanced karaoke? Or does it mean that outside of the NFL, you never really know what will click with viewers — so you might as well keep trying for the best and the brightest?
"Community" might be closer to graduation than my friends and I would like, and "Parks and Recreation" might never get the audience it so mightily deserves. But NBC shouldn't give up preserving or pursuing those types of shows just because they are struggling today. For one thing, at the end of the week, they take up very little real estate on a primetime schedule. For another, no one — not even NBC — knows how, when or why the next show will click with a broader fanbase.
ABC's "Modern Family," which I endorse wholeheartedly as a clever scripted show, is thriving while "Parks and Rec" struggles. To some extent this is because of their respective networks, but to a larger extent because of something nuanced to the point of being almost indefinable. "Modern Family," after all, premiered on a struggling network with very little support system around it.
NBC needs to continue to believe that, despite all the discouraging evidence to the contrary, that it can deliver the next "Modern Family," the next "Seinfeld," the next "ER," and without going entirely to cheap laughs or stunts to do so. TV is a messy business, and even the best and the brightest must admit, as we all do, that no one can systematically predict what will work.