Back in the 1980s, when the Peacock Network was being run rather well by the late Brandon Tartikoff, it had a great promotional campaign: a montage of all its hot shows, including the highly touted Thursday Night Must See TV, with a catchy tune proclaiming, “NBC there … Be there!”
Campaigns like that don’t really exist anymore, nor, for that matter, does Must See TV, which went the way of the Dodo some years ago. On the contrary, the network that for years was known for its powerhouse comedy lineup enters the new season with just two on the schedule, and only one of those is a returning show. How times change.
Before we get into that, though, there’s the overall health of the network to consider. It’s owned by Comcast, the parent company of NBCUniversal, which also owns Spanish broadcasting giant Telemundo, as well as 16 national cable networks, over a dozen regional sports and news networks, more than 60 international channels and digital media properties that include Hulu, Fandango, and Seeso. Not to mention Universal Pictures, Focus Features, and theme parks in Orlando, Japan, Singapore, and Hollywood. That’s pretty big.
But this isn’t about Comcast or NBCUniversal, it’s about NBC as a network. So while Comcast had a record breaking year in 2015 with over $74 billion in revenue, the network’s 7 percent revenue rise in the fourth quarter of 2015, thanks to a rise in ad revenue, was offset by rising operating costs and expenses, and a resulting 5.6 percent drop in operating cash flow. The new year has seen added gains, as Comcast reported $2.1 billion in revenue for its broadcast networks during the second quarter of 2016, up 17.3 percent from the same quarter a year prior. Certainly a solid trend, especially considering the fact that the not yet complete third quarter also includes the Rio Olympics, which will probably mean a spike in advertising revenue.
The fact that ratings for the games weren’t great — in fact, the average of 27.5 million viewers across all platforms was down 9 percent from the 2012 London Games — will certainly affect the overall numbers, since NBCUniversal had to provide additional inventory to advertisers to make up for a shortfall in viewership. But while the final totals fell short of projections, the third quarter should still be a vast improvement over the same period in 2015.
Now, technically, the Olympics fall under the auspices of NBC Sports, just as Sunday Night Football and Football Night In America do, and yet both appeared in prime time and thus were also part of Robert Greenblatt’s world. Greenblatt is the Chairman of NBC Entertainment, and he has seen the network’s fortunes rise enormously under his stewardship since his arrival in 2011. While NBC hasn’t won the overall network title for total viewers since the 2001-02 season (during the glory days of Friends, ER, Frasier, and Will and Grace), it did take the top spot in the ratings war in both 2013-14 and 2014-15, capturing first place in the key 18-49 demographic before finishing second last year to CBS during the standard TV season. Interestingly, just yesterday it was announced that NBC will take its third straight 52-week ratings season, finishing first among that prime 18-49 demo, as well as among 25-54 year-olds in prime time. NBC is still second in total viewers behind CBS, but a win is a win, and that can’t be discounted, especially when you remember that NBC was in the basement upon Greenblatt’s arrival.
Three of the last four years, the network has had the highest rated show on television, that being the juggernaut that is Sunday Night Football. NBC has the property through the 2022-23 season, which basically means that it is guaranteed a certain number of viewers for the final 17 weeks of every year. In 2015, those viewers averaged over 21 million per week, and there is no reason to believe that will fall off at all this autumn.
What’s interesting about the network’s prime-time programming — even as Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show owns late night and Seth Meyers has established himself as the true successor to David Letterman as the programming block’s political commentator and social conscience — is that, while it had four other shows in the top 20 last year, none of them were scripted. Aside from Sunday Night Football, there were the two nights of The Voice, as well as the Steve Harvey-led kids’ talent show Little Big Shots, and the football pregame show, Football Night in America. While it’s certainly nice to have 25 percent of television’s top 20 shows coming from your network, it would be nicer if there was some scripted entertainment in there.
Amazingly, there are five such shows in the rankings between 21 and 40 (which, doing the math, gives NBC 10 of the top 40 shows, or that same 25 percent), led by The Blacklist at 22, then the freshman action-drama Blindspot at 28, the Jennifer Lopez-led Shades of Blue at 35, and two of legendary creator Dick Wolf’s Chicago-set shows — Chicago Fire and Chicago Med — at numbers 31 and 37, respectively (the third entry in the shared world, Chicago PD, came in at a respectable 47).
Look again at those shows and there are a couple things that stand out. The first is that they are all action-oriented, giving NBC a similar thru-line to its programming, just as CBS has with its procedurals. The other, and more disconcerting, is that they are all dramas. The network that rewrote the rules on TV comedy and how to program it had exactly two sitcoms in the top 100. Super Store came in at 66 and The Carmichael Show sneaked in at 100. Both shows will return, with the former getting a big promotional push to start the season and the latter returning for a 13-episode third season in the spring.
Otherwise, the comedy landscape is pretty barren in these parts, but for The Good Place, a new sitcom from Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur, starring Ted Danson and Kristen Bell and set to follow Super Store on Thursday nights. While the show’s pedigree is unquestioned, it’s still going to have something of a tough row to hoe, considering that it will first be up against Thursday Night Football and Grey’s Anatomy, and then, when The Big Bang Theory moves to its regular night late next month, it will be up against fellow freshman entry The Great Indoors, with Joel McHale. Now, personally, I’ll take Danson and Bell over McHale most days (nothing against McHale, of course), but the gargantuan lead-in the CBS show will be getting from TBBT can’t be discounted.
Still, the drama and unscripted departments at the Peacock Network remain strong, despite several shows on last year’s schedule not returning (we hardly knew ye, The Mysteries of Laura, Heartbreaker, and The Player). There are two new dramas on the fall schedule to go along with Chicago Med, which debuted in mid-season last year. The first is the time travel series, Timeless, and the other is the ensemble melodrama, This Is Us. The first show seems to fit in the successful style of other recent hits like The Blacklist and Blindspot, whereas the second fills the role of Parenthood, a show that never did great numbers but which the network kept around for six seasons, allowing it to build a small but rabid following. It also comes from Dan Fogelman, who is only one of the hottest and most highly sought-after writers in Hollywood.
Not to gloss over 2015-16, because it was a solid year for the network, but as successful as it may have been, it was also something of a bloodletting. Aside from the three cancelled shows mentioned above, there was also the short-lived Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris, yet another failed attempt to bring the variety show back to prime time; Heroes Reborn, which finally died a death long coming; and the sitcoms Truth Be Told, which lasted 10 episodes, and Undateable, cancelled after its third season.
Where NBC succeeds are its solid relationships with creators. You would think that, after all these years, Dick Wolf might have run out of gas by now, but the legendary creator continues his fruitful relationship with the network. Thanks to Law & Order: SVU and his three Chicago shows, he’s responsible for four hours of prime time programming. Jon Bokenkamp’s The Blacklist has spawned a spinoff with Famke Janssen, The Blacklist: Redemption, set for mid-season. Schur has gone from The Office to Parks and Rec to The Good Place. Timeless comes from Eric Kripke, best known for the long-running Supernatural on The CW, but also responsible for two seasons of Revolution, which aired on NBC from 2012 to 2014. One of the shows scheduled for mid-season, the Wizard of Oz reimagining, Emerald City, comes from David Schulner, who created the short-lived medical drama Do No Harm for the network in 2013.
The overall health of certain shows is clear. Wolf’s foursome, to start, The Voice isn’t going anywhere, and The Blacklist is probably solid as long as James Spader wants to be a part of it. Blindspot is equally solid, offering a sharp, hour-long actioner to start off its Wednesday night lineup against stiff competition like Survivor on CBS, the first hour of ABC’s comedy block (occupied here by The Goldbergs and promising newcomer Speechless), Fox’s freshman adaptation of Lethal Weapon, and The CW’s very popular superhero show Arrow. The hit Friday night genre show Grimm also returns in January for its final season, which would lead you to think that the network might be looking for a similar type of show to replace it. And you would be right, as Midnight, Texas, based on a series of occult books by Charlaine Harris, premieres midseason.
There also includes an updated sequel of sorts to the hit 1999 film Cruel Intentions, featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar, one of the stars of the original; an “event” medical drama called Salvation; a mob comedy starring Seann William Scott called The Baby; as well as three shows with put pilot commitments: a legal show based on the experience of O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, an untitled show about three good girl mothers and wives who descend into a life of crime in Detroit, and an untitled comedy from Fresh Off the Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan about the only girl in Philadelphia growing up in a mixed-race family. Certainly some multicultural fare, but thematically, nothing that seems terribly fresh or inventive.
From now until the end of the year, Sunday and Monday look really good for NBC. There’s no reason to believe that Sunday Night Football won’t continue to be the most watched show on TV, and the combination of The Voice and freshman drama Timeless should allow the network to give CBS a run for its money. The rest of the week will likely be some combination of seconds and thirds, as it does battle with ABC and Fox for runner-up to the CBS juggernaut.
One place where NBC does have a bit of a leg up, coincidentally, is at Hulu, the streaming service it co-owns with ABC and Fox. For $7.99 per month ($11.99 without commercials), you can stay up to date on any network show, while also catching up with an extensive library. While CBS is still getting its streaming service off the ground, Hulu is well established and making a concerted effort to be a forceful competitor with Netflix and Amazon (and we’ll get to all three of them in the weeks to come).
All in all, things are pretty good at NBC. They could certainly be worse, and in fact were, quite recently. Under Greenblatt’s guidance, the network has steadily climbed the ladder over the past few years, the question is, can it overcome the strength of CBS? To do so this season is doubtful, but with the continued success of its core shows, and the potential of some new ones like This Is Us and Timeless, they could set the tone for a continued rise and, potentially, a return to number one.
For that to happen, of course, a lot has to go right, and that’s sort of a risky place to be.
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