Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012 Upfront Revisited, NBC

The winter break is not quite at the calendar midpoint of the TV season, but it's as close to a "stopping point" as we're gonna get. So this week, as promised, I'm doing one rather lengthy post for each network looking back at how the moves made on the upfront schedules have worked out. Because I love sabotaging my own credibility, I will also revisit some of my thoughts on those moves at the time they happened. Then I'll have a larger-scale look at the ups/downs of the network's fall. Finally, I'll look ahead to the upcoming midseason schedule changes.

More Upfronts Revisited: ABC | CBS | NBC | Fox | CW

Revisiting the Upfront
How did the big and little moves of the upfront look at the time? How do they look now?

The Big Move: Voice in the Fall, Revolution and Go On the lead-outs
It sounds like the answer to ["How much The Voice?"] is "a lot," as Bob Greenblatt's comments would suggest they're going with two cycles in 2012-13. How does the double-pump end up working out ratings-wise? We will see, but it's worth being concerned about.

Leading into comedies seems like a pretty good idea, but I still would've liked to see something a little wider-reaching in the Monday slot. Perhaps they are sure enough in Castle and Hawaii Five-0 staying put on Monday that they felt like going off the beaten path again. (Upfront Answers)
From this particular point in time, it's hard to deny that The Voice in the fall was a huge win. My concerns about the long-term effects remain, but NBC was probably in the right to risk it if they could reap short term benefits. And they have definitely done that. It's one of the few shows that actually did better than I expected this fall, and it seems Go On and Revolution were reasonable enough choices as lead-outs.

I thought Go On would succeed and Revolution would be more middling, and it's turned out to be about the opposite. Most people call Go On a "modest success," which seems a little kind to me, but whatevs. Clearly neither one has bombed.

I'm not a massive Revolution fan, but the show was a much better fit with The Voice than I'd have thought, eschewing much of the "talky" mythology of so many post-Lost efforts in favor of more action/adventure.

The Little Moves: Keeping New Comedies Separate from Returnees
What I like about NBC's schedule is that there are a couple very clear messages: 1) comedy is hot, and it's our best hope to get back in the game; 2) our existing comedies are not going to be helpful in that pursuit. I happen to agree with both of those things, and it's a good thing that they recognized them and committed to them (whereas I'm afraid at least one upcoming network will not). NBC could've very easily hedged things much more, mixing in new comedies with old ones and continuing the culture of comedy low-ratedness. (Upfront Answers)
The comedy development this season has pretty much been a bust, including the supposedly "great" slate on NBC. Is that about the shows or about "people don't want comedy anymore"? I look at The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, which are widening their leads over the top broadcast dramas, and favor "it's about the shows." Still, this arrangement gave Go On and The New Normal a better shot than some mixing into Thursday would have. True2 suggests Go On probably would've done approximately Parks and Recreation numbers, maybe a tick or so better, if aired after The Office. Does someone want to suggest to me that the Go On audience is so independent of The Voice that it'd actually carry over much better than that?

SVU/Chicago Fire 
[Chicago Fire] feels like yet another of those "conventional wisdom" dramas that I listed above. NBC seems to bomb out with one every year. It seems like a pretty competent procedural production, and that seems like something NBC should be doing, but then it can't get out of the gate at all. If it can start off decently, maybe, but the only one of the above that did had the Law & Order name attached. Something has to break the rule eventually, but consider me highly skeptical until NBC proves otherwise.  (Best Case/Worst Case)
Not quite ready to admit "defeat" on Chicago Fire yet, but it has at the very least been the strongest of the "conventional wisdom" dramas in quite some time. What it is exactly is still not totally clear. It's had a pretty fascinating variety of situations. Don't overreact to any of them: the 2.2 demo after The Voice, the 1.9 demo against the Grammy Nominations Concert, or the 1.4 demo airing after Take It All. Reality seems somewhere in the middle. NBC would certainly renew it if the season ended today, but it's not that far away from being basically a dud, and it's not that far away from looking like a potential "replacement" for SVU. Whatever happens, it's done better than I (and the advertisers) expected, and there aren't many shows like that this season.

White Flag Thursday Full of Low-Rated Returnees
NBC essentially raises the white flag on once-proud Thursday night. This will get pretty ugly. I do rather like the fact that they didn't try to mix any new shows into this mess, though. What I really meant by this question was: would NBC have enough confidence in the returning comedies to just mix in new comedies around them? Clearly not. And that's honestly probably pretty smart. Perhaps NBC's real best play was to just admit that there are going to be big holes regardless and try to consolidate them all on one night. It's the scheduling equivalent of a quarantine zone. Of course, doing this kind of thing means the other nights had really better work. (Upfront Answers)
This has worked out horribly, as pretty much everyone correctly predicted. It's crazy to me how horribly it's worked out. I figured The Office would hold much better in its final season; it's down about a third. Even Parks and Recreation is down in the upper teens, despite a move to what should be a "better" timeslot.

I feel the same way about the 90210/Gossip Girl lineup on the CW's Monday, and about all those mismatched shows on ABC Tuesday. It seems like combinations of duds produce even greater collective dud-ism. It's hard to quantify, though.

Grimm Still on Friday/Comedy Block Dead
Well, Grimm stays, alongside what feels like probably the last two comedies renewed. I can't say Whitney and Community feels like a good pairing, but... it's what's left over. I don't see them doing much of anything, and in fact I wouldn't be stunned to see them hold off on premiering those two for awhile to see how things develop. (Upfront Answers)
I was right about the comedies, not that it was a huge triumph of a prediction. If any pairing ever felt like a place-holder, it was Whitney and Community.

Grimm, though, remains, and it's done pretty darn well. (Through twelve episodes, including the Monday ones which weren't really that much higher-rated, the show's up 4% year-to-year. By fall 2012 standards, that's great, especially since it hasn't gotten a better situation this season.) To some extent, their decision to keep it on Friday has been vindicated. The ratings have held up, and they don't really have the huge gaping 1.0 ratings holes across the rest of the week that they did for most of last year.

But I still have to wonder what NBC's intentions are with Grimm. Is NBC just going to air this on Friday with essentially no lead-in and no lead-out forever? There are umpteen variables in something like this, but some kind of Wednesday or even Thursday lineup involving both Revolution and Grimm might become a legit temptation.

Big Picture
What are the best and worst possible spins on the network's performance this fall?

Glass Half-Full:

The numbers are the numbers. However tied up in one or two shows it might be, NBC is a first-place network and a big grower in what's been an autumn of well above average declines on the other three networks. Kudos.

"NBC's success is The Voice's success" is pretty much a true statement; more on that in the half-empty section! But the success of The Voice itself shouldn't be minimized. Yeah, it routed Britney-fueled The X Factor in the early going and all that, but the real triumph of The Voice this fall has come later on, when fewer people were paying attention. It was that it held up a lot better in the second half of the season.

There was a notion in the first two seasons (pretty effectively backed up in ratings) that The Voice didn't really have much to offer beyond the blind auditions. This year, that drop was much less pronounced. In fact, it didn't really drop at all until the live shows; it held up fabulously during the battle rounds, which was when most of the drops took place last year. The Monday airings were down 26% from the spring season in the opening month (the blind auditions month) but dead even in the following ten weeks. Maybe some of that was about the Super Bowl inflation in the spring; but it got even better (as in slightly up) during the last few weeks.

There's been one other positive but much farther under-the-radar development on NBC: the network that peacocked comedy at the upfront has very quietly developed a decent stable of relatively young dramas, and on a bunch of different nights. That's a refreshing change for a network that had a very long stretch of near-total incompetence in drama development. It's not so much that they've caught up to the top-tier dramas on other networks (OK, except maybe Fox), but they're trending better, and they're surprisingly strong compared to the NBC comedies. If I were in charge, I'd pretty strongly consider renewing all five dramas on the NBC fall schedule before I renew any comedy, given that The Office is off the table.

Glass Half-Empty:

I did a post a few weeks ago looking at the extent to which The Voice has boosted NBC's entertainment programming department. Sunday Night Football has about the same-sized boost on NBC's overall averages. (The Voice's boost on that front is much smaller.) As I said a few weeks ago, I point those things out not to discredit NBC for having them. I'm just trying to poke a hole in the "NBC is back!!1" narrative that must be poked: NBC's gonna be in much worse shape at season's end than they are now. Both those boosters will be gone in a matter of weeks. One doesn't return till the end of March. One doesn't return till September.

NBC's lead is now large enough at the one-third pole that they may still stack up pretty well at the end of the season. But they're not gonna win the season, and they may well have some ugly months ahead. I hate to slam them for said months before they've happened, but it seems close to inevitable. This season will go down as a legit start to a comeback, but NBC still has a long way to go to develop a truly deep, respectable schedule.

Among things that have actually happened, the biggest disappointment for NBC has to be the sitcom category in general. Only one of the four newbies was a total flop, but none of the other three has really emerged in any way. If Go On aired on Thursday, I see no reason to believe it wouldn't be getting Thursday-type ratings. The sophomore runs of Whitney and Up All Night, both pretty close renewals, have gone very badly so far. And The Office and 30 Rock are both 1) dunzo and 2) not really benefiting, at least so far, from the run-up to being dunzo. This winter/spring could very well be the last hurrah for this generation of the NBC Thursday comedy lineup. Did NBC over-invest in comedy, or did they over-invest in these comedies? Either way, this is not where they wanted their sitcom department to be.

Looking Ahead
What moves will the network make at midseason, and how smart are those moves?

Long Voice/Revolution Hiatus

Why are The Voice and Revolution leaving the airwaves for over three months? We'll start with Revolution, because it's so obvious that they even admit it: they don't want it to air apart from The Voice. I suppose I don't blame them too much at this early juncture. But I do have to question: is this a multi-year thing? Is NBC never going to move Revolution as long as it's a "success"? That, to me, would be the real risk, because I still believe (as great as the fall's been) that this whole "Voice as megahit" thing may have a fairly limited shelf-life. I'm pretty sure one full season is the best length for this arrangement.

I could very well be wrong on this, but I have a feeling Revolution would hold up better on another night than people give it credit for. The shows have quite different gender compositions and quite different DVRing habits. (Namely, Revolution is much more male and much more DVRed.) There's no doubt The Voice is helping, but I don't think "Why is Revolution a success?" can be simply answered, "Oh, The Voice." This show seems fairly legit. Want a show that would dive-bomb without The Voice? Let's see how Smash does this winter.

OK, so Revolution is on a long hiatus because of The Voice. But why is The Voice on such a long hiatus? It feels like there are some dangers here. The two Monday seasons of The Voice each had head starts on Dancing with the Stars; this year, DWTS returns first. That might not end up mattering, but I wouldn't want to risk it unless I had to. And while the effects of long hiatuses on genre shows have been overstated at times, it's still not something I would recommend for Revolution.

Three theories on the length of the hiatus:

1) They actually want to "rest" the show and try to avert a quick burnout. Call me cynical, but even if you think that the hiatus is good for The Voice, I'm rather doubting that this is their thinking.

2) They, like other networks, are getting "serious" about the summer and want to use the back end of the Voice's spring season to launch the summer schedule. I could buy this, to some degree. They're gonna have some leftover dramas for the summer, and it'd sure be nice if they could do better than Saving Hope. And America's Got Talent put up some amazing numbers when mixed with The Voice in summer 2011.

3) Logistical reasons. Maybe relating to Shakira's pregnancy or something? Dunno. But I think this is the main reason, with #2 (and maybe #1) more of a blessing in disguise. I just find it a little shaky that they would willfully give CBS three months of Monday freedom and willfully give Dancing with the Stars a head start, but maybe that's just me.

The Replacements: Biggest Loser, Deception, Off Their Rockers, Smash 

I doubt they will do all that well, but I kinda like The Biggest Loser and Off Their Rockers for the twixt-Voice roles. TBL might be at the right point in its life cycle to settle into a The Bachelor-like role for NBC, sharing a timeslot with a bigger show between seasons.

Deception seems like something that could flop hard, but then I thought that about the somewhat similar Revenge too. And while I thought Golden Globe-nominated Smash deserved a renewal last year, it was certainly no Revolution, and I'm still not really sure where on the schedule it could have much shot at long-term success. I don't think it's going to do well on Tuesday (it'd be a huge win if it even manages Parenthood numbers), but I can't say I think there's an obvious better choice.

1600 Penn and Do No Harm to Thursday

When you're a midseason show and your network has a good fall, sometimes you get screwed. Are 1600 Penn and Do No Harm in good shape by joining Community, Parks and The Office on Thursday? Nah. The comparisons are inevitable between Do No Harm and last year's Awake, another show-about-a-dude-with-two-lives. Could NBC reasonably do better by them? I kind of doubt it. They could've put 1600 after Go On, but they'd probably only do that if they were strongly considering giving up on The New Normal. They could've put Do No Harm after The Voice in the spring, but that'd mean throwing Revolution somewhere perilous. It seems reasonable to choose the new shows that they know have done at least OK over the ones that they liked even worse coming in.

Hey, at least they didn't throw Do No Harm on Friday and keep Rock Center on Thursday! (Although, now that I think about it, Grimm and Do No Harm might not be the worst combo in the world.)

More Upfronts Revisited: ABC | CBS | NBC | Fox | CW


Spot said...

I think NBC is just as befuddled about Grimm as you are. The network doesn't know what to do: moving it to another night has shown that it'll get the same Friday-level ratings, but developing compatible shows for Grimm hasn't entered their head as a great idea. Odd as it is to say, NBC should take a page from The CW: The Smallville/Supernatural pairing was surprisingly strong a) for a Friday night b) with minimal promotion and c) being off-brand for the network's focus. Grimm should be paired with a similar genre drama, which may have been the goal with Mockingbird Lane, to try and get it to the next level.

I have to ask this question: why the worry that The Voice is going to burn out quickly by airing twice a season? Wisely, NBC is following the same template that Survivor and Dancing with the Stars did: an off-cycle launch for season 1 that proved wildly successful (I'm fudging a touch here since The Voice started in late April), a Winter debut for season 2 that confirmed there's a large audience for the show, and a Fall launch for season 3. Survivor's still a solid show for CBS, and while Dancing with the Stars is fading fast it took six years (15 seasons for Stars) before questions about the show's future started being asked.

Spot said...

Mainly I'm worried because the whole rest of the competition reality genre is trending down big-time at this point, and I don't know that it's a coincidence that Idol took a huge hit as soon as Fox entered the space in the fall. DWTS is a good example, but it also has much shorter seasons. This year it started two weeks after and ended three weeks before The Voice. So it can regularly take the 3.5-month breaks, which Voice couldn't at two seasons a year.

But ultimately it's a moot point because NBC has little choice but to do it this way if they can.

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