I Hate to Pick on NBC (Again) (But Not Really): However, I Really Needed a Laugh

posted Mar 4, 2013, 10:21 AM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Mar 4, 2013, 10:23 AM ]
The spirit of the late, great Andy Griffith shines down on WKYC, the NBC affiliate in Cleveland, -- and to hundreds of thousands of viewers in the Cleveland TV market... 

Late last week, there was a shocking turn of events in the continuing and potentially never ending saga of NBC's prime-time ratings woes that have also extended into late news, late night and, as of last summer, to the once unbeatable TODAY SHOW when it crumbled to rival Good Morning America on ABC in the core A2554 and then eventually total viewers. These defeats were the first such experienced by the sixty-year-old morning franchise in SEVENTEEN years. 

As the old (because I doubt I'm the first to say it) adage goes: so goes your prime, so goes the rest of your day. But this was all inevitable -- and avoidable. More on that later...

As reported by website Warming Glow and tweeted to me by my dear friend @alishporterWKYC announced on their website that they were preempting part of parent network NBC's low-rated Thursday night lineup with a "special presentation" (as the station called it) of... 

Matlock: The Legacy 

from 1992!

The preempted 9-10pm hour that consisted of an Office repeat and a new 1600 Penn will air from 1-2a late Saturday/early Sunday and the prempted 10-11pm hour that consisted of a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit repeat will air 3-4a late Saturday/early Sunday. 

First off, can affiliates really do this? Well, yes...but sometimes with monetary penalties if such a move is deemed a breach of the station's affiliation with a network. After all, the Salt Lake City market is notorious for making such moves. Their NBC station, KSL, refused to air the gay-themed New Normal AT ALL last year. The previous season, they refused to air the short-lived Playboy ClubBoth The New Normal and The Playboy Club eventually found new homes on Saturday nights on KUCW, the CW station in the market. 

In the past, Salt Lake City's CBS affiliate KUTV refused to air the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show. In the way past (1977), ABC affiliates refused to air the comedy series SoapSo this is far from unprecedented. However, in this case, it's questionable because it's not about the content. But it's completely understandable because it's about the ratings.


From the Broadcast Law Blog (as lifted from Dave Ramos's WTAM radio page): 

- Station licensees have an unfettered right to reject network programming that they believe is contrary to the public interest, "unsatisfactory" or "unsuitable"

- Stations can preempt network programming when the licensee thinks there is some other programming which is of greater national or local importance.

- If a preemption is done for one of these reasons, the affiliation agreement cannot impose monetary or non-monetary penalties or limit the amount of such preemptions

- Affiliation agreements cannot give networks the right to "option" time in the future unless they make a commitment to fill that time with programming. This is important in a multichannel digital context, as it prevents networks from tying up time on a second or third channel that they might or might not use.


Perhaps because of the subsequent airing -- albeit in the weekend overnight hours -- WKYC avoids a monetary fine from the network because they're doing it again this week as well. That same 9-11 block on Thursday nights will be preempted for another "special presentation" -- Matlock: The Heist from 1995. 

My guess is that the unique nature of this programming situation will generate some greater interest than NBC's regular lineup. Interest generally translates into ratings. Pretty soon, local affiliates will be reprogramming troublesome timeslots with reruns of old shows if it is deemed such a rerun will perform better than the current programming.

Imagine if the network as a whole followed suit:

ER Reruns could return to its longtime home at 10pm on Thursday nights -- where NBC hasn't had a successful show since it went off the air in 2009. Friends Reruns could take back its own longtime 8pm spot, Seinfeld Reruns could reclaim the 9pm tentpole position and Will & Grace Reruns could follow at 9:30pm with Cheers Reruns and Reruns of The Cosby Show alternating at 8:30pm.  

It couldn't hurt.

Still, this has to embarrassing for NBC -- especially since it seems to be making national news within the media community. But knowing NBC, they're probably laughing off like they always do. Or ignoring the real statement being made by WKYC in airing a 21-year-old movie...

...in PRIME TIME...

...on a THURSDAY NIGHT...

Station management at WKYC played down the Matlock preemption as something they’ve done for the last ten years to maximize first quarter inventory, the ad dollars for which they get to keep by running the Matlock special. And they choose Matlock because older viewers enjoy the show. I don’t know the senior population of Cleveland, but I can’t imagine it’s at Matlock-level.

WKYC’s station management further stressed that the Matlock preemption had nothing to do with NBC’s primetime ratings performance.

Despite WKYC station management’s claim, I still have my doubts. I can’t imagine they would have preempted such premium primetime real estate if The Voice ran in that time slot. Besides, they also claim that they thought 1600 Penn was going to be a repeat instead of an original. Right. So while the preempted 9-11 block was primarily repeats, ratings still played a part because low-rated originals lead to lower-rated repeats.

Regardless, I can’t imagine there wasn’t some sort of statement the station was trying to make by showing a 21-year-old movie on what was once a powerhouse night for NBC as a whole and WKYC itself.

************************************ 

Warming Glow posited a couple of weeks ago about the seven boneheaded steps NBC (which was in first place this fall in the outdated A1849 demo), made in the last six (now eight) weeks in order to fall to last place in that same outdated demo.

While I agreed with some of it, there are some things the article missed that I wanted to make note of here:


From the Dustin Rowles article dated 2/13/13 (with editor's notes):

Through November, the once miserably rated NBC had somehow, inexplicably risen to the top network in the prized 18-49 demographic, after years of struggling. The network was riding high on the success of Sunday Night FootballThe Voice and their new drama, Revolution. Things were going well for the network. The new president of the company, Bob Greenblatt, was feeling cocky, often boasting about how he’d turned the network around.

But then January came. Sunday Night Football ended its season. The Voice and Revolution went on hiatus, and in a very short period of time, NBC plummeted back down to its fourth-place position in the ratings. How did it happen, and how did it happen so quickly? Here’s a look at NBC’s seven most boneheaded mistakes in the last six weeks (Editor's Note - these numbers are in the outdated A1849 demo):


7. NBC decided to pull its SOLE new hit of the season, Revolution, for a show called Deception, which no one watches. Revolution’s ratings hovered around 3.5, while Deception is around 1.3. Also, Bob Greenblatt reduced Revolution’s order by two episodes to make room for Deception.

It's strange for me to say this but this was actually wise on NBC's part. "Revolution" is doing well BEHIND "The Voice" and it's so far been unproven outside of its protected time slot. Given the fact that the ratings of every other show benefitting directly from "The Voice" have deflated without that lead-in, there is no reason to risk having the same happen to "Revolution". 

"Revolution" should NEVER air without "The Voice" until it has to -- and even after that it may take a few seasons for it to stand on its own, as it did with ABC's "Castle". It took a few season for the now-popular drama to survive on its own in between cycles of its "Dancing with the Stars" lead-in. But I doubt NBC has that type of patience -- which is strange because they really have nothing to lose at this point.


6. Much of NBC’s early season success was attributed to the modest success of the Matthew Perry sitcom, Go On and New Normal, which were inexplicably scheduled to go up against more established sitcoms on two other channels (Happy Endings and New Girl). After it was all said and done, all of those sitcoms were damaged, but none more than Go On and New Normal, which — without their The Voice lead-ins — fell to ratings similar to that of Guys with Kids and below Whitney, 1.1 – 1.3. 

I wouldn't say "much" of it, but "Go On" and "The New Normal" had much further to fall without its powerhouse lead-in. 


5. Part of the reason that both Community and 30 Rock received shortened, 13-episode orders was to make room for mid-season replacements, which were expected to perform better in the ratings. Eventually, however, Community was shifted over to replace 30 Rock and that mid-season replacement, 1600 Penn, receives a 1.3 rating. In fact, its ratings are so bad and it is so reviled by critics that it’s been preempted this week for an additional episode of The Office. It would probably be canceled if NBC had anything else to put in the slot, but it axed its Dane Cook sitcom before it even aired. 

The bigger part of the reason was because neither show does much by way of ratings and the latter series was going into its seventh marginally-rated-at-best-but-critically-acclaimed-and-award-garnering season. 

There was really no reason for NBC to believe that either midseason replacement would break out given the fact that the former hasn't in three seasons and the latter's launching pad was on a night of now-perennially low-rated comedies. 


4. Despite tepid ratings, the well liked Up All Night returned for a second season with a retooled format. It didn’t matter. Ratings continued to fall. NBC pulled the show with the intention of reformatting it as a multi-camera laugh track sitcom. During the hiatus, the showrunner quit, and eventually, so did the show’s lead, Christina Applegate. Nevertheless, this week, NBC inexplicably decided to move forward and film ONE episode in the new format without Applegate. Why? God knows. 

Since this was posted, NBC decided against even filming the one episode -- another wise move (still strange to say). The format of the well-liked show shouldn't have been tweaked in the first place. And it shouldn't have been overhauled in the second place. 

Either way, this show wasn't going to make or break NBC's fortunes on Thursday night where it last aired or any other night of the week where it could have aired. 


3. For a full month before it was set to air, promos for the mid-season drama Do No Harm could not be avoided. Despite heavy promotional efforts, however, the show debuted with the lowest ratings ever for a series debut (0.9 in the demo), and then fell even further in its second week (0.7) before it was canceled. The one upside to this, however, was that NBC found out that Rock Center with Brian Williams had better ratings in its Friday slot than the Thursday slot. What will NBC do? Probably move it back to Thursday in a few weeks. 

Only NBC could have a show perform better on "death knell" Fridays than on its once-storied Thursday nights. And that says something. It says a lot. 

There must be a curse on that Thursday 10pm time slot. I'll call it "The 'ER' Curse". Typically such curses are for solid-performing shows prematurely cancelled such as CBS's "Judging Amy" from its longtime Tuesday 10pm time slot in 2006 or relocated short-sightedly to another night such as ABC's "Ugly Betty" in 2009 from Thursdays at 8pm to Fridays at 9pm. 

There are three factors at play in the quick demise of "Do No Harm": 1) the surging "Scandal" on ABC; 2) the low-rated newsmagazine "Rock Center with Brian Williams" had been airing in that time slot since the fall and 3) the "Rock Center" audience is largely different from the potential "Do No Harm" audience and despite whatever heavy promotions there may have been, viewers were either confused, annoyed or a combination of both. So the "Rock Center" audience wasn't interested in "Do No Harm" and the potential "Do No Harm" audience didn't find the show before it was cancelled. NBC would have been wiser to air repeats of another drama (perhaps "Parenthood) in that time slot. Regardless, everyone knew airing "Rock Center" was a boneheaded move. 

 

2. NBC came in the 2012-2013 season with the idea that “broader is better” with their choice of sitcoms. The strategy failed. Animal Practice was quickly canceled, while Guys with Kids and Whitney perform poorly in the ratings. In fact, the “niche” comedies, Parks and RecreationThe Office, and even Community are performing better than the “broader” comedies. 

The strategy failed because it wasn't even executed. "Animal Practice" isn't broad. "Go On" isn't broad, it's quirky. "The New Normal" isn't broad, it's a bit catty and a bit caustic. Though they aren't "conventionally niche" like "Parks and Recreation", "The Office" and "Community", but none of this is broad in the classic NBC sense to which they need to return. 

"Guys with Kids" and "Whitney" are small steps in the right direction. The former is silly fun that is getting better creatively and should be granted a second season despite its ratings. The latter had its second chance this season, but nothing can overcome a largely unappealing lead (both the actress and the character). 


1. Despite a huge promotional effort, personnel turnover, and a lot of hopes pinned on the second-season return of Smash, the premiere debuted with a 1.1 rating in the 18-49 demo, essentially hammering the nail into the coffin of NBC’s once promising 2012-2013 season. Parenthood, which received a shortened 15-episode order to make room for Smash, was receiving a 1.7 rating in the demo. At this point, NBC’s schedule has been pretty much decimated, besides one bright light in a sea of suck: Parks and Recreation's audience continues to grow.

Not to dampen this bright light, but "Parks and Recreation" will never be a breakout hit no matter how much it grows. This is not to say it isn't good or undeserving of a sixth season, because it is based solely on buzz, acclaim, pedigree and a loyal core audience. 

Similarly, but for entirely different reasons, "Smash" was never going to be a big hit either. It's about Broadway. There's no overcoming that for a large part of the audience. Unlike "Glee", it's not a young person's show and therefore, not demo-friendly. This doesn't mean it's a bad show, but it has its creative flaws and sometimes goes all over the place. While it's just like "Glee" in THAT regard, it doesn't have the same buzz and pop culture cache that "Glee" once had. 


But here’s the real reason why NBC fell from first to fourth (and now fifth) place in the outdated demo stems much farther back than just the fall....

******************************************

NBC has been in the ratings toilet since Friends went off the air nearly a decade ago during the laughably tragic Jeff Zucker Era of no long-term strategic thinking.

Instead of effectively using TV's #1 comedy to develop new comedy hits, Zucker continued to ride the Friends train with super-sized episodes and a ninth and then a tenth season of the show where he paid each cast member one million dollars per episode -- that's 40 episodes times six cast members. A lot of that could have been invested in potential new hits to replace the aging series as it was begging to go off the air during those last two seasons but justifiably hanging on because the money was good and the numbers remained high.

NBC has been struggling ever since Friends went off the air in 2004. Spinoff Joey, which premiered in the fall of 2004 to dubious fanfare, was a flop from the start. Will & Grace, then in its seventh season of an eventual eight, couldn't maintain the night and neither could ER, which was in its eleventh of an eventual fifteen. But no aging series should be expected to. It's TV's version of the circle of life. You use a popular series to develop and grow new hits. Then you let the popular series go out on top or as it's starting to decline so that the new hit can take its place. Simple as that.

But NBC didn't do that. And by the May 2005 upfronts, even Zucker had to admit that they screwed up. But that didn't stop them.

They then completely altered their long-standing approach to programming with a gluttonly of so-called smart, single camera comedies driven by snarky, caustic, awkward humor that appealed to niche audiences. While The Office and 30 Rock were critically acclaimed, neither prevented NBC from quickly falling from first to fourth place by just about every measure -- and staying there.

But then The Voice broke out last year. And its fall edition, coupled with Sunday Night Football, propelled NBC back to #1 in the all-important but out-dated A1849 demo that advertisers love because they've long since become accustomed to loving it -- not because it's still relevant.

And typical NBC -- they boasted like a peacock about how they were back. And they've crashed and burned again because, as it turns out that they just relied on The Voice and Sunday Night Football for their positioning without establishing any sense of a foundation to maintain it once the former was between cycles and the latter finished for the season.

New York Times article last week chronicled NBC's most recent descent.

And typical NBC -- on one hand they're standing around with their arms in the "I don't know what happened" position wondering what happened when what happened was clear to anyone with a strategic thought in their brain could see was going to happen before it happened.

And typical NBC -- on the other hand they're standing on the outside of a broken window they hurled a boulder through, but overlooking the glass and continuing to wash the broken window while talking about how much better the window will look once it's cleaned -- but still broken.

They point to the new edition of Celebrity Apprentice -- hardly boastworthy and a shadow of its former greatness since they erroneously tweaked the original format four editions in. Now it's a celebration of trainwreckery.

They point to Michael J. Fox's return to series television this fall, to whom they've already granted a full season order. I will give them this because this could be GREAT. However, they have to be REALLY smart with the still-untitled but promising new comedy as this will likely be the cornerstone of their rebuilt Thursday night to which only Parks and Recreation should return as the sacrificial lamb of sorts opposite The Big Bang Theory, which is going to continue to own that 8pm time slot. And instead of launching a new series in the now-dreaded 10pm slot haunted by the dearly-departed ER, stabilize the night with the indefatigable Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (which will ironically be entering its own 15th season).

They then point to the questionable second cycle of The Voice this season. What they don't mention is the fact that while it could be equally strong or stronger with new judges Shakira and Usher replacing Cee-Lo and Christina Aguilera, it could also suffer from viewer fatigue of singing competitions. After all, pre-teen American Idol has suffered from its now-rotating slate of judges and declining interest.

And as the new adage goes, so goes The Voice, so goes the rest of NBC right now.

But to show they're thinking long-term, they look to Sunday Night Football in the fall and the Winter Olympics in early 2014.

Insert eye-roll here.

Because while they admit that they need to do a better job of carrying their hoped-for fall success into the winter and to better leverage the Winter Olympics for the spring, it still comes down to the programming -- which they haven't really had this season.

But the solution to NBC's root problem is simple, though not easily reached:

1) Return to the broad-based, mass appeal comedies that marked their heyday.

2) Develop a long-term strategy plan for stability and stick to it. A true meteoric rise these days takes time. Ask CBS, who were the first to challenge their Thursday night dominance in the early 2000s and then overtake it.

3) Recognize that Thursday nights are no longer their night.

4) Exercise patience with promising programs.

5) Resist the urge to turn tail when they don't rise to #1 in ten weeks.

6) Pay me a fraction of what they're currently pay their bonehead programming executives for this brilliance.