Kids, there was a time when NBC was not the biggest loser, when the network’s Thursday night lineup was a ratings powerhouse and a critical favorite, when the NBC advertising department was justified in using the promotional phrase “Must See TV” to refer to its sitcoms. That was long before NBC Thursday night’s current incarnation as Must Flee TV, or Musn’t See TV, or Musty Free TV.
In its prime, the NBC Thursday machine produced a handful of classic sitcoms that still live in the public consciousness, shows whose influences and cast members continue to thrive. The must-see tale began in the 1980s with “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” and “Cheers,” and it continued through the 1990s with “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” with “Frasier” and “Will & Grace” in the mix. There were, of course, plenty of duds plugged in between these hits; the words “Suddenly” and “Susan” still strike fear in the hearts of many, and Kirstie Alley’s “Veronica’s Closet” is under consideration by the FBI for use as a torture device. But for the most part the night was a big deal, not least of all for movie companies looking to spend money promoting their Friday releases.
What happened? Why is the network now trying to revive its glory days by bringing back a “Family Ties” star in the lousy “Michael J. Fox Show” and a “Will & Grace” star in the even lousier “Sean Saves the World”? Why are the ratings so low that one of the night’s three new sitcoms, the culture-clash dud “Welcome to the Family,” was pulled after three dismal weeks, and the extremely low-rated “Sean” is already on the bubble? And “Michael J. Fox” – which got a full-season order last year based on a pitch – is only a smidge safer than “Sean,” while “Parks and Recreation,” a great series now in its later years, has been pulled for a few weeks so NBC can try to goose the night with specials and reality shows.
For one thing, NBC never recovered from the loss of “Seinfeld,” which left the air in 1998 despite NBC’s extremely lucrative offer – $5 million per episode – to Jerry Seinfeld. The network futzed around “Seinfeld,” moving “Frasier,” “Just Shoot Me,” and “Will & Grace” to Thursdays, stocking up on guest stars, and supersizing episodes, the equivalent of adding more air to ice cream. But the balloon kept deflating. And then once “Friends” ended in 2004, the best things NBC could come up with were the “Friends” spinoff, “Joey,” and Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” The balloon popped.
Meanwhile, CBS saw its chance and, with the help of “Survivor” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” the network began to steal viewers by the millions. Soon NBC was in second place, and its attempts to use reality TV in the mix to goose the numbers – not only with “The Apprentice” but with “Deal or No Deal” – remained unfruitful over the long run. And then ABC had also moved in on the huge Thursday night viewership with “Grey’s Anatomy,” and NBC had fallen into third place. It was painful to watch NBC make bad decision after bad decision, while the competition pounced. When CBS finally brought over “The Big Bang Theory” from Monday night in 2010 to form a Thursday comedy juggernaut, it was like watching CBS dance on NBC’s grave.
Oddly, the second problem for NBC was far more sympathetic: NBC’s good taste. In the mid-2000s, the NBC programmers decided to move ahead with some smart character comedies, hoping that creative might would make ratings right. They brought in “The Office,” “My Name Is Earl,” and “30 Rock,” each of which was excellent in its own way but, alas, all of which were limited in terms of viewership. By the time the lineup was “Community,” “Parks and Recreation,” “The Office,” and “30 Rock,” NBC had a stellar lineup but no viewers for it. What viewers they had were young and affluent, a definite plus. But still, the outlook was grim.
The network was dabbling in a cable sensibility, gearing its sitcoms toward viewers expecting something more than a setup and a punch line. “30 Rock,” for example, was a fresh take on HBO’s top-notch “The Larry Sanders Show.” But many viewers looking for more – many of whom were probably fans of “Seinfeld” and “Will & Grace” – had already defected to cable. And NBC was not satisfied with boutique-sized audiences.
And now we see another problem emerging. After a few years failing to build significant audiences for the good shows, NBC has decided to, as NBC president Robert Greenblatt explained in 2012, go more stereotypically mainstream. “We’re trying to broaden our audience and broaden what the network does,” he said. “Those Thursday comedies, which the critics love and we love, tend to be more narrow than we’d ultimately like as we go forward.” The result of that thinking: “Welcome to the Family,” “Sean Saves the World,” and “The Michael J. Fox Show,” a trio of mediocrity and worse.
So going broad is failing spectacularly. And now the Emmys and the critics are defecting. NBC has painted itself into a corner, and something better than “Sean” will need to save it.