Every now and again, a show comes along with the potential to carry an entire network on its proverbial shoulders. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s electrifying. Last year, NBC found just such a show with the sensation This Is Us. The family melodrama was the most watched hour-long drama in the prime demo, trouncing the reigning champ, Fox’s Empire, and far surpassing CBS shows like NCIS, Criminal Minds, and fellow freshman show Bull, all of which had more total viewers.
The focus on the prime demographic of viewers 18 to 49 years of age is important, as this is where the advertising rates are decided, and so it’s worth more than just bragging rights to garner the highest numbers there. Thus, thanks to the enormous amount of people tuning in to Football Night in America and This Is Us, since NBC took the top spot for the third time in four years, it finds its ongoing recovery from last place laughingstock to a prime time powerhouse complete. With an average of 8.1 million viewers per show, that’s second to CBS, but unlike the Tiffany Network, which lost 12 percent of its viewers from the season prior, NBC actually saw an uptick of 0.2 percent.
It’s not just those two shows, of course, but the two nights of football (Thursday and Sunday) and the highly rated drama claim three of the top five spots in the final rankings, so they’re the ones that get a good deal of the credit, along with the two nights of competition show The Voice. NBC’s run as the most watched network by the most important demo, rather than total viewers, means that it is the pace-setter as the new season begins. Revenues were up by 19 percent for the 2016 calendar year, and up 5.5 percent in the second quarter of 2017. For a business that generally continues to lose viewers (this past season excepted), those increases are impressive and help to stave off the talk of more dire circumstances.
What’s curious about NBC’s rise over the last several years is how little of it is based on comedy. The Peacock Network, which used to be known for its Must See TV Thursday night lineup of sitcoms — starting more than 30 years ago with stalwarts like The Cosby Show and Cheers, continuing through the 90s with Seinfeld and Frasier, and into the Oughts with the likes of Will & Grace — has mostly eschewed them of late to focus on hour long dramas. Aside from The Good Place and Superstore, there were no major sitcoms in the lineup at the beginning of last season. Only when The Good Place ended its 13 episode run did Great News appear, though it was hustled through its 10 episode run in just five weeks. The show executive produced by Tina Fey and created by her protege, Tracy Wigfield, was barely watched by anyone (it finished tied for 115th in the prime demo rankings, with a 1.0 rating), and yet somehow was granted a renewal, an odd choice considering the only other “new” sitcom appearing on the network’s schedule this fall is the return of Will & Grace. The revival landed a 13 episode order, up from the original 10. Other shows that got great notices but few viewers, like The Carmichael Show, were canceled outright.
The thing is, though, that as much as people love their sitcoms, it’s hard to argue with results. NBC is scoring the high ratings on the back of football and drama. Don’t forget, there is an outstanding tradition of cutting edge hour-long programming on the network, as well. Shows like Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, E.R., and Friday Night Lights paved the way for something like This Is Us, and so it makes sense that, while younger viewers don’t tend to shine towards the standard procedurals that CBS cranks out so well, they do return over and over again to serialized storytelling, something at which NBC clearly excels.
There’s also the ongoing partnership the network continues to have with über-producer Dick Wolf. Whereas his Law & Order empire has shrunk from a high of four shows to just one. Law & Order: SVU is a seemingly indefatigable entry that will probably continue as long as star Mariska Hargitay wants it to. It is getting company this fall with a brand new project, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, starring Edie Falco (a show that clearly follows in the footsteps of FX’s American Crime Story), which joins Wolf’s Windy City-based shows, Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and in mid-season, Chicago Med. That’s four of 15 prime time hours — not including football Sundays and rerun Saturdays — coming from a single producer (since Chicago Med would conceivably take the place of the limited run True Crime), which seems to work out well for everyone involved. Wolf’s style of show, a sort of semi-serialized procedural, draws younger viewers in a way that so many of the CBS dramas don’t. Likewise, the canceled-and-then-saved Timeless, the James Spader-led The Blacklist, and the action hours Taken and Blindspot are all solid performers.
So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that there are so few new shows on the fall grid. Aside from that Will & Grace reboot and the new Law & Order entry, the only other new show is The Brave, another action hour starring Anne Heche, about a group of soldiers who execute challenging and dangerous missions behind enemy lines (yawn). There are more on the way, of course, and they’ll either show up as replacement shows or premiere after football season is over. Sitcoms like A.P. Bio, from Seth Meyers, and the Mindy Kaling executive produced Champions will take over after those premiering in the fall run through their 13 episodes. Same with the inspirational drama Rise, from Friday Night Lights executive producer Jason Katims, and the comedic heist drama Good Girls, both of which will show up eventually, alongside competition shows like Ellen’s Game of Games, from Ellen DeGeneres, Genius Junior, and the Handmade Project, hosted by Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler.
Just as ABC has realized with its coterie of reborn game shows like $100,000 Pyramid and the Alec Baldwin-hosted Match Game reboot, so has NBC seen how helpful those kinds of shows can be. They’re cheap, easy to churn out, and provide that sort of cotton candy, empty calories-type of show that draws viewers who only need to pay partial attention. Throw in a couple of live performance events, like a stage version of A Few Good Men and the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, and there is some interesting fare in store for those who tune in to NBC. There’s also Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, which provides viewers with a mostly politics free-zone in late night television, a bastion of frivolity that has slipped behind Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, but which still pulls in good numbers, as does Meyers’ Late Night, a show that doubles up on the politics and current events. Both continue the traditions begun decades back and provide the network with lots of revenue. Same with Saturday Night Live, which had an incredible resurgence over the past year, thanks to the election and its aftermath. The show hasn’t been this relevant since the turn of the century.
There is no standard method to attract viewers because if there was, the networks would not find their successes waxing and waning as they do, but a lot of small successes add up. Each of the main four networks have seen that, to some extent, and for the moment, it’s NBC’s turn at number one. It has gone from atop the television world to the bottom of it, then back to the top, thanks to these series of smaller victories. The discovery of a titanic new show, the ongoing behemoth that is the NFL, the Monday morning water cooler event that SNL has suddenly become again, it all counts. The network’s current strategy of fewer sitcoms, more dramas, and at least one night of football for the first four months of the TV season adds up to a success that is next to impossible to contest. So why bother? Instead, the question has to be asked, because it’s certainly being asked in-house, Where can it find another dynamo like This Is Us? Now that the network has one such show pony, it needs to build on that victory and produce more just like it.
That, really, is the best way to stay on top. Which means NBC has its work cut out for it, but it’s certainly better than the alternative, that being a third place network that continues to lose viewers and slip further behind its competition. That is where we find ABC, but we’ll talk about that next week.
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