How NBC Sold a Comedy Empire


There is no such thing as essential live viewing on television anymore. DVRs, Hulu, Netflix and less savory acquisition methods have done away with the idea that a programming block is necessary for success. Still, up until this fall, NBC’s Thursday night line-up was the counter argument. Since 1982, when NBC debuted its Must See TV line-up, it obliterated competition. To list the programs it showed is to list some of the greatest sitcoms of all-time: The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld, Friends, Will & Grace. NBC thoroughly dominated Thursdays, as well as comedy, in general. On top of that, the 10pm (Eatern) dramatic slot was an absolute slayer. Between 1982 and 2007, there were only three series that aired: Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and E.R.

There was a stumble in 2004. Friends ended, Scrubs was still finding its audience, and more monumentally, CBS had built up viable competition. Survivor and CSI were going strong. NBC were dethroned from atop the ratings kingdom. They tried Joey. They tried The Apprentice. The network was floundering. Not failing outright, but the success they become accustomed to wasn’t coming.

Enter 2006. Will & Grace is over, but that doesn’t matter. Scrubs had found its audience. More importantly, so have two of their newer shows, entering their second seasons: The Office and My Name is Earl. Former SNL cast member Tina Fey is trying her hand at a sitcom with 30 Rock. NBC recovered. And they did so in unfathomable fashion. They recaptured much of their waning audience, as the talk around both middle schools and water coolers drifted away from Survivor and towards The Office and their other shows. (It’s worth mentioning here that Grey’s Anatomy premiered in March of 2005 and also aired on Thursdays. It’s not easy to track who to ratings from whom, but it stands to reason that this audience overlapped more with CBS’ than NBC’s).

Comedy Night Done Right

With the new line-up, NBC ditched the Must See TV brand for a less-so, but still self-congratulating slogan: Comedy Night, Done Right. Their comedy block was truly unparalleled. CBS had its Monday line-up, and though it competed (and sometimes exceeded) in terms of popularity, its critical reception was paltry in comparison.

Then 2009 happened. My Name is Earl ended. Scrubs left for ABC. (To give NBC credit, Scrubs had its would-be final season on that network, but it was terrible, and so they opted for a proper close on ABC). Parks and Recreation debuted to a rocky first season, and Community followed in the fall to critical acclaim but commercial mediocrity. The storied 10pm slot, especially, became impotent. After more than 20 years of that whatever show aired in that timeslot placing in the Top-40 or higher in ratings for the season, it fell out of the top-50 completely. Failed programs like The Jay Leno Show, Southland, The Marriage Ref and The Firm comprise its broadcast list.

Maybe it’s nothing more than a curios aside, but it’s worth mention that Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence didn’t even pitch Cougar Town to NBC, despite the network housing Scrubs for most of its run and the show starring Friends alumna Courtney Cox.

None of NBC’s primetime Thursday night shows have been in the top-50 in ratings since 2010.

Even that, though, wasn’t quite enough to damn NBC’s good name. The network still had 30 Rock, The Office (though the series faltered without Steve Carrel) Parks and Recreation, which grew into a critical darling, and Community, a show that’s critical-and-online success never materialized into ratings. The quality was still mostly there. Even with a rotating set of shows that didn’t last (Perfect Couples, The Paul Reiser Show, OutsourcedUp All Night), things weren’t so bad. On any given night, there was 90-120 minutes of good comedy to be had.

Things are different now. The Office and 30 Rock are over. NBC’s 3-4 year slide has gone from a slope to a straight drop down. The truly frustrating thing is that it didn’t have to be this way. It’s true that The Big Bang Theory’s 2012 move from Monday to Thursday hurt NBC, but there was no reason to wave a white flag.

Brooklyn Nine Nine

Network TV is fighting the digital age, and Network TV is losing, but there is no way to explain the sheer incompetence that has plagued NBC in recent years. The Office and 30 Rock had to end, but they could have been replaced. And that’s not just some vague statement of affirmation. There are two programs that could have and should have replaced them. And both of them are produced and distributed by Universal Television. To Fox. NBC didn’t need someone to throw them a life jacket, they had their own. All they had to do was put them on. The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine could have saved NBC’s Thursday Nights.

Both shows feels as if they’re checklists for what NBC should be looking for. Produced by them? Check. Starring a comedian NBC made famous? Check. Written by someone NBC made famous? Check.

Failure to acquire both of these shows is sad, but failing to acquire both of them is embarrassing. The picture gets fuzzier because NBC actually commissioned The Mindy Project. They released it, four months later Fox buys it. To add insult to injury, it won the 2012 Critics’ Choice Television Award for Most Exciting New Series.

There’s less information about what happened with Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The show was designed in the same way that 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation were designed, and it was created by Dan Goor and Michael Schur. Schur, of course, was one of the co-creators for both The Office and Parks and Recreation, and Goor has written for The Daily Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and Parks and Recreation. Again, there’s not a lot of available information about why exactly NBC isn’t airing this show. However, if they got outbid or just weren’t interested, there’s no clearer sign that the network has completely given up.

Unless, of course, their Thursday night programming is mentioned. The programs that presumably bumped The Mindy Project in 2012 were Go On and 1600 Penn. Neither of which, it should be mentioned, are still on TV. The shows that presumably bumped Brooklyn Nine-Nine were (the already cancelled) Welcome to the Family, Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show. Parks and Recreation has been handled in a perplexing manner thus far, with NBC pushing episodes around the calendar, and Community is slated to premiere at the beginning of 2014, likely so they can get the season over with and axe it.

It’s clear that NBC has no interest in retaining the audience that it had. The kids that grew into comedy watching The Office, 30 Rock and the like are plainly not the audience for Sean Saves the World or The Michael J. Fox Show. Moreover, it’s clear that NBC has no qualms selling their audience to Fox, who have built a comedy block (New Girl, The Mindy Project, Brookyln Nine-Nine) that makes NBC’s look, at best, vintage.

What NBC is trying to do is clear. They feel they’ve lost their market (the audiences that Community and Parks and Recreation draw), and so they’re attacking a different one. They want the people that were in their 20s when Will & Grace premiered and the people who know Michael J. Fox for more than just his illness and his cameo roles. They’re trying to win back the people that watched Family Ties during its original run.

NBC is fighting the digital age, and NBC is losing. Nielsen is going to start taking ratings for online viewing, and NBC is going to lose by more. They’re changing their demographic instead of changing with their demographic, and they’re not doing a very good job.

Kings get dethroned. That much is inevitable. This king feels like one that drank itself into oblivion and then started throwing buckets of money at the kids next door. It would be said seeing something that used to be so great crumble if only it wasn’t voluntary.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. About time someone discussed this. NBC canceled nearly all of their sitcoms. They keep aiming to start clean with new sitcoms. What went wrong with the sitcoms they already had!

  2. Singleton

    Well I haven’t watched NBC regularly since Friends ended (beside the occasional viewing of ‘Parenthood’, one of the best shows on any network, broadcast or cable).

  3. Petra Foster

    It is quite amazing to me that in year 2013, NBC has not yet fully grasped that the model is not just broken — it is dead. Long, long gone are the days when 15, 20 million watched one episode of anything.

  4. Ruth Clayton

    We all know that NBC has been all over the map for a long long time, producing some quality shows, sometimes giving them time to develop and build an audience, while at other times killing them off prematurely. They have been off track for long now though.

  5. Alyssa Sharp

    Broadcast Televison is not doing so very well, mainly because of stupid restrictions imposed by the FCC and social culture. Consider if NBC had Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, or those type of shows, NBC (and other major networks) would be doing great. But they can’t, because the FCC does not allow broadcast to have profanity, nudity, or certain subject matters.

  6. The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine didn’t appeal to me. NBC hasn’t had anything appealing for years.

  7. Taylor Ramsey

    The old model is dead, true. Another issue is the cost involved in quality, and the potential risk. Quality is much easier than the networks want to admit, it just costs a great deal more to produce a good show than a middle of the road show.
    The risk is in spending that money an a show not finding its audience, but the new business model takes into account the streaming an longer term life of a show on line that the networks, still stuck in their old model simply don’t yet believe in.

  8. The ideas evolve from individuals who don’t have backgrounds in Television. It’s not worth listening to. And that’s the trouble with all free TV networks. They analyze data and pay attention to demos instead of committing to a series, experimenting, trying, and listening to the people with loyalties to give to something entertaining without coming from an uninspired assembly line. People like risk-taking, and that’s why they’ve stopped watching the major networks in droves.

  9. Some very thoughtful comments.

  10. Felipe O.

    We know all networks (broadcast, cable and pay) will continue their path to follow the money. Always found it amazing a show like “Seinfeld”, that once used ‘kasha’ as a punchline, was popular throughout the country. Speaks every bit as much to the quality of writing and cast chemistry than all other factors.

  11. We keep find ourselves watching great TV and watching fewer films, and understand the comments about Stephen Soderbergh and others leaving film and going to TV because that’s where the good work is being done. Just not on the networks. R.I.P. NBC.

    • I don’t think it’s fair to say that film is declining. It’s really just changing. Independent film is eons better than it ever has been. The widely released films are faltering, but there’s still a slew of fantastic films that come out .

  12. Nice article. I don’t usually associate these shows with the TV company name, so it’s refreshing to read a brief history of NBC’s rise and fall.

  13. Nicola Kahler

    Very true, NBC is definitely losing its touch when it comes to broadcasting comedies… I personally love The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine! Taking on these shows would definitely have helped the distributor at least partially regain their strong reputation as quality comedy broadcasters.

    On a positive note, their emphasis on crime dramas and thrillers seems to be paying off, with Hannibal and The Blacklist both proving to be highly successful original programs.

  14. Jessica Koroll

    I stopped following NBC’s comedy a long time ago so I sometimes forget just how powerful they once were on that front. Although, even when they did have a slew of highly successful and truly hilarious series airing, NBC’s inability to properly handle their shows has been ridiculous to watch. It’s really no surprised that they’re in the shape they are now.

  15. NBC seems to enjoy dangling good shows and then ripping them off the air. I don’t watch shows on that network anymore, until they are guaranteed a second season.I’m Australian, so it doesn’t affect its (meaningless) Nielsen ratings.

    Great article, but it reminded me just how frustrating television can be!

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