On Tuesday, NBC announced the cancellation of The Playboy Club. Yesterday they announced that the Wednesday night comedy Free Agents would be joining the period drama. The shows had aired three and four episodes, respectively, at the time of cancellation. It begs the question: What the fuck is NBC doing?
Several years back, NBC had a lineup they called “Must See TV”. This Thursday night block included television legends such as Friends, Seinfeld, even Cheers, once upon a time. Traditionally it was a two hour block of four half hour comedies followed by a drama such as ER. For about two decades it dominated, containing some of the season’s most watch shows (ER and Seinfeld both ranked as the #1 most watch program multiple times).
Along the way things got muddy. Seinfeld ended in 1998 and Friends in 2004. American Idol happened and soon followed a high demand for reality television. And NBC replaced one hour of comedy with The Apprentice.
Since then the network has been struggling to find ratings. In 2010, of the 20 most watched shows NBC only placed twice (#2 Sunday Night Football, #10 America’s Got Talent).
However, other networks have found success in multi-cam sitcoms and procedural dramas yet NBC hasn’t resorted to them completely. While still offering shows like Law & Order: SVU and the new Whitney, most of NBC’s lineup are shows that are uniquely NBC. Shows like Parks and Recreation, Community, even Chuck could not exist on other networks. Other networks may have numbers, but NBC shows have substance. They are quirky but they are good and the critics love them. They may have a smaller audience, but it is an extremely passionate one.
The person who watches NCIS probably catch the episode when they can. Tuesdays come, they turn on the TV, the episode, and then move on. The chances that they go back to rewatch the procedural or own the DVD boxed set are minimal. It’s not that kind of show. There’s a mystery and most likely by the end of the episode it’s solved. Sometimes there are overarcing story lines but not often. It’s a show about happenings, about immediate gratification. Viewers probably don’t hang posters of Mark Harmon on their wall. What’s the point of rewatching a mystery that you have already solved?
Now, the people who watch Parks and Recreation or Community are a whole different breed. They are fans. They are consumers. More than likely they own all the current available DVDs and possibly more merchandise like t-shirts, mugs, shot glasses, etc. They care deeply about the characters, where they are going and how their relationships evolve. They are going to care about them even after the show ends. The will wear out their DVDs.
This is something that NBC has over mostly all other networks (with the major exception obviously being Glee, a merchandising kingpin). Garnering fans is, or should be, the business NBC is in. And guess what? it takes more than three episodes for someone to become a fan. Seinfeld didn’t gain a large viewership until its fifth season and Cheers didn’t until its fourth. Word of mouth is a huge marketing strategy, which frankly, NBC could use. (Its marketing department is terrible. I didn’t hear about Free Agents until the night it aired and only because I had been planning on turning in for Up All Night, a show that I had been following because of the stars, yet, every commercial break has at least one Whitney related spot. And that’s only considering its new shows.) With most of my most watched shows, I didn’t start until at least the second season because people who I trust told me it was awesome — something that was just starting to happen for both The Playboy Club and Free Agents.
I understand that making TV is really about making money. I know that it is a business. But maybe NBC should try a new strategy. They are not going to beat CBS or FOX by the numbers straight out of the gate. It’s has to be a slower build. If they let quality shows hang around longer, it could snowball into the hit NBC is seeking.
Or maybe they should just hire a new fucking marketing team.