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Sunday, February 10, 2013
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7 Lessons NBC can Learn from other Networks

By Rachel Bennett
Television Editor & Columnist

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After a fantastic fall that moved it from fourth to first place among the major networks, NBC is hitting yet another rough patch this spring.

The premieres of new shows Deception, 1600 Penn and Do No Harm failed (NBC is pulling the plug on Do No Harm after two episodes), and promising rookies Go On and The New Normal are tumbling without lead-in The Voice. Aside from this, Smash saw its second season premiere down 39 percent from its May season finale, attracting 4.5 million viewers and just a 1.1 adults rating.

On top of it all, NBC’s Up All Night star Christina Applegate is leaving the comedy as it’s in the middle of a major creative overhaul, saying, “It’s been a great experience working on Up All Night, but the show has taken a different creative direction and I decided it was best for me to move on to other endeavors.”

We’ve written a lot about NBC’s struggles, but it’s time to look ahead at how it can change for the better. And why not learn from example? Here are lessons NBC would be wise to pick up from its more successful network companions:

1. Lesson Learned from CBS: Procedurals work

They may not be exciting or new, but viewers like procedurals — the trick is, they just don’t like all procedurals. NBC tried and failed to launch several in the past few years, including Mercy, Harry’s Law and Chase, yet none have really stuck. Luckily, firefighter drama Chicago Fire is performing decently enough for the net to give it two additional episodes this season (for a total of 24). Barring any drastic ratings downslide, the series will be back in the fall, and NBC would be wise to move it to the coveted Thursday 10 p.m. timeslot. The last show to successfully hold the spot was the doctor procedural ER, which closed its doors in 2009.

If the peacock network can market Chicago Fire and grow its audience, it would not only have a Thursday anchor from which to build, but it may also have a franchise on its hands (executive producer Dick Wolf, who’s responsible for the Law & Order series, may know a thing or two about franchises). Meanwhile, CBS will still be raking in the viewers with its CSI and NCIS programs and laughing all the way to the bank.

2. Lesson Learned from Fox: Observe what trends are popular

One of the surprising, if not the most surprising, stories to come from fall TV is that AMC’s The Walking Dead outperformed every other scripted series in the adult demo — even besting such broadcast shows as ABC’s Modern Family and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. Before this, it was unheard of for a cable program to even come close to the same numbers as a broadcast series. Fox picked up on audiences’ love for gore quickly and heavily marketed its violent drama The Following, which premiered Jan. 21. The drama debuted to a 3.2 adults 18-49 rating, landing it the second highest-rated drama premiere of the year (NBC’s Revolution holds the top spot). Since then, the program has become the No. 9 show among viewers 18-49, the No. 8 show among adults 18-34 and the No. 15 show among total viewers.

NBC is sitting on its own violent drama, Hannibal, but it has yet to schedule its premiere. The series stars talented actors Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen and is run by beloved creator Bryan Fuller (ABC’s Pushing Daisies), so it’s unexplainable why the peacock net is hesitant to air the drama. However, by the time Hannibal does premiere, it may be too late to gain an audience.

3. Lesson Learned from ABC: Don’t be afraid to carve out your niche

Although NBC should work on constructing solid procedurals as well as follow trends, it needs to recreate its niche after the Must-See TV era. As it is, the network seems too concerned with copying all of the successful tactics of other networks. NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt repeatedly says the network wants to broaden its comedies, which is evident in its investment in such multicamera sitcoms as Guys with Kids, Whitney and Are You There, Chelsea? Should Up All Night return following the departure of star Christina Applegate, it will transition from a single-camera series to multicamera one. CBS dominates in multicamera sitcoms, but so far, viewers haven’t gravitated toward NBC’s offerings: Last week, Guys with Kids and Whitney each pulled a 1.2 adults rating, and Are You There, Chelsea? was canceled after one season. Why? Because no one wants a CBS when there’s already a CBS.

NBC has also tried to mimic its dramas after others, including Deception (aka ABC’s Revenge) and The Playboy Club (aka AMC’s Mad Men). ABC was able to reconstruct itself in the 2004-2005 season with a procedural (Grey’s Anatomy) and two out-of-the-box dramas (Lost and Desperate Housewives). Since, the network has become one of the most imaginative on TV and has lately become the place for fairytales and superheroes (Once Upon a Time, S.H.I.E.L.D.). If NBC can find what makes it unique, it will be able to rebrand and market itself accordingly, giving it focus when convincing viewers why they should tune in.

4. Lesson Learned from FX: Trust your showrunners

Trusting showrunners is imperative to running a successful network, and no other network does it better than FX. Of course, it’s easier for the net to do this because cable series do not operate under the same FCC regulations as broadcast shows, but giving a showrunner control is a nice principle to live by. When NBC’s Smash showrunner Theresa Rebeck left the series after its first season, she said, “One of the points of contention last year was that the network thinks they have the right to say to the writer of the show, ‘We don’t want her to do this. We want her to do this.’ And I would sometimes say back to them, ‘She would never do that.’ And they’d look at me like I was crazy, and I’d be like, ‘Nope, it’s not crazy, it’s just who the character is.'” Rebeck added, “There is this sort of sense that … if you don’t f— with the muse, the muse will stand by you.” Following positive reviews of its pilot, Smash has seen massive critical and commercial fallout.

Unlike NBC, FX has made a name for itself by trusting showrunners. Perhaps the most famous example is the creation of Louie, starring, written, produced, directed and edited by Louis C.K. FX president and general manager John Landgraf lets C.K. have total creative control over the series in exchange for a reduced budget, yet it’s yielded one of the best comedies on TV as well as Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Aside from this, the show witnessed an impressive ratings spike for its third season. What’s perhaps most important about respecting showrunners, however, is that it will cause more to seek out a network. If NBC becomes known for exerting too much creative control, not many talented creators and writers will want to work for the peacock net — leading to more mediocre products and dismal audiences.

5. Lesson Learned from HBO: Listen to critics

HBO is often heralded for its programming. It may not always have the best ratings, but it’s usually beloved by critics and forward thinking. This has allowed the channel to attract some of the best showrunners, writers, producers and actors in the business. Such programs as Girls, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones have continued to carry the critical torch passed on to them by The Sopranos, Sex and the City and The Wire, and as a result, the net has branded itself as the crown jewel of TV storytellers.

NBC isn’t as lucky as HBO, as it has to worry more about ratings because its revenue comes from advertising rates as opposed to subscriptions, but critics can highlight shows that audiences will love. This season, two critically beloved shows that are often ignored by NBC have actually grown in viewers: Parenthood and Parks and Recreation (it doesn’t hurt that these series are available on Netflix Instant). Could you imagine how much bigger they would be if NBC had marketed them more this season? Likewise, instead of having heavily invested in such panned comedies as Are You There, Chelsea? and Whitney last year, what if the peacock net had actually promoted the much better Bent and Best Friends Forever (may they rest in peace)? Then, NBC could have had two fantastic comedies on its schedule as opposed to two sour multicamera sitcoms. Sometimes, quality can lead to quantity — if only NBC would realize this.

6. Lesson Learned from Showtime: Find movie stars and give them vehicles

Showtime has almost become the channel for movie stars looking for a meaty role. Laura Linney (The Big C), Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds), Don Cheadle (House of Lies) and Claire Danes (Homeland) are just some of the actors to call Showtime home. As the number of channels expands, the roles for movie actors become more plentiful and better. Sure, these actors will most likely seek out cable roles, but that doesn’t mean they won’t consider cable — just look at Zooey Dechanel (Fox’s New Girl), Kerry Washington (ABC’s Scandal) and Jonny Lee Miller (CBS’s Elementary).

Prime Suspect and Harry’s Law were a start for NBC, as they employed Maria Bello and Kathy Bates, respectively, but it will just take a little more courting and stronger projects. Fantastic movie actors bring gravitas to a network, and behind-the-scenes talent will follow if they know a tfantastic actors are attached to a channel. Just look at Showtime — this tactic led to the net’s first Best Drama Emmy, as Homeland took it home in September. NBC is going to try again with Michael J. Fox and his new comedy, and the net could finally have a winner on its hands.

7. Lesson Learned from Netflix: Time is money

This is perhaps the biggest lesson NBC could learn. The channel’s schedule is all over the place, and although it’s trying a variety of tactics to see what sticks, most of them are failing. One of its strategies this season was premiering pilots early by posting them online, airing them after the summer Olympics and/or broadcasting them following America’s Got Talent, which appeared to be a smart move. However, among its choices, the channel opted to air sneak peeks of two of its weakest pilots: Animal Practice and Guys with Kids. When these comedies bowed in their normal timeslots, they came in fourth place among the major networks. Animal Practice was eventually axed, whereas Guys with Kids isn’t making much of a dent each week.

Strangely enough, NBC has delayed the premieres of some of its best shows. Rookie Revolution, in addition to The Voice, helped NBC find its footing again in the fall. However, the drama saw its ratings slip toward the end of the first half of the season, only for the net to say the series wouldn’t be back with new episodes until March (to coincide with the new season of The Voice). The Voice will no doubt be a great lead-in for Revolution, but will viewers still tune in following such a long break? The second season of Smash was also pushed back, and its ratings didn’t fare so well.

Netflix recently released its first major original series, House of Cards, and its most notable feature is that all episodes of the first season were available. With the increasing number of SVOD providers (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.), viewers are becoming more accustomed to watching episodes of series back-to-back — meaning they rarely have to wait for a new episode.  The longer audiences have to wait for new episodes, the more they’ll tune in to other shows that won’t make them wait. Revolution could see a lack of audience members when it returns, and NBC could pay a serious price for not adapting to changing viewing habits.

What other lessons could NBC learn? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Snapps izking

    Awesome article! I hope this is some helpful info that NBC
    can take into consideration and make things better. I think Deceptions one of
    the best shows on right now and I was surprised Do No Harm was cancelled after
    just 2 episodes. Since I mainly watch primetime programming, I need to get mine
    recorded working evenings. I use the
    PrimeTime Anytime feature in my DISH Hopper DVR to catch all my shows because it
    will automatically record the 4 major networks on one TV for me to watch within
    the next eight days. I enjoy this option which’s one of my favorites from my
    employer DISH, and now the wife and kids can watch their shows while all of
    mine record.

  • Da Robot

    NBC has the best comedies like “30 Rock”, “Park and Rec”, “Community”,
    “1600 Penn”, and “The Office” but America prefers to watch comedies with
    laugh tracks telling them when to laugh. Procedural are awful I don’t
    think “Lost” could survive today, NCIS would kill them in ratings. We
    hold going to the movies in higher standards but when it comes to tv we prefer crap like “2 Broke Girls”.
    Also the Nielsen rating is outdated if you look at Hulu’s number shows
    like Community do better than those dumb laugh track comedies.