This idea has been talked about for a while — NBC was rumoured to be thinking about it even before this season — but with the collapse of their new dramas and the atrocious ratings for The Apprentice, the network has decided to open up a three-hour comedy block on Thursdays, scheduling two half-hour comedies at 10 pm.
Now, let’s step back and remember the last time this same network came up with the innovative, brilliant idea of scheduling comedy at 10 o’clock. And then let’s remember that whatever happens, the network will follow these steps: a) Claim that this an idea whose time has come, that the broadcast model has changing, and that comedy could provide a great alternative to whatever else is on the other networks. b) Admit a year later that this was an idea they’d been kicking around for a while and pulled the trigger on because they didn’t have anything else.
Can half-hour comedy work at 10 o’clock? It’s difficult to know. In this era, the 10 o’clock slot is increasingly unwatched on broadcast TV; it’s the hour when viewers either watch what they’ve DVR’d or watch cable, which is why the networks have had serious trouble coming up with a genuine new hit in that hour. With fewer people watching, and audiences that tend to go older, a half-hour comedy (which usually appeals to younger audiences than the usual 10 o’clock show) could be decent counter-programming but it’s more likely just to get disappointing numbers.
NBC seems to know and even expect this: that’s why the show they’ve chosen for 10 o’clock is 30 Rock, whose time slot change coincides with a guaranteed pickup for more seasons. In other words, 30 Rock is low-rated but it’s cancellation-proof, and if it does something like what it does at 8:30 — or somewhere near it — NBC will be satisfied, and the show won’t be in any trouble if it goes below that number. If NBC put a drama at that hour it would just get beaten (even in the Coveted Demographic) by The Mentalist and Private Practice Putting 30 Rock there may make the beating less troublesome at worst, and might unexpectedly pay off if the show finds some new viewers. For Tina Fey, the news is all good. She gets to keep her show on the air forever, she has the chance of anchoring an hour, and she no longer has to suffer the humiliation of losing in the ratings to a show as bad as Shat My Dad Says. Now she’ll be losing to a Very Special Episode of Private Practice, but that will be far less hard to take.
This new schedule is also great news for Parks & Recreation, which finally gets back on the air and gets the 9:30 slot after The Office that it’s always wanted. This is the last season when the post-Office slot is guaranteed to mean anything in the ratings so the network had better get as much use out of it as it can. This is the best news for me, too, since Parks & Recreation is my favourite part of their lineup — I find it more satisfying than Community (which has great moments but a lot of times that I find not-so-great, and a central character I just don’t seem to enjoy watching) and more character-based than 30 Rock.
It’s terrible news for the two freshman comedies, Perfect Couples and Outsourced. The latter, which was doing well after The Office — it’s actually NBC’s highest-rated new show, mostly by default — is being moved from the best slot to probably the worst, asked to perform with a less compatible and less popular lead-in, while airing at a time when most people are starting to drift away. I don’t know if NBC has too little confidence in the show or too much (or, knowing how executives can never agree, maybe both). Meanwhile the new midseason show, Perfect Couples, will be airing after the low-rated Community; launching a new comedy is tough enough as it is, but it’s incredibly difficult with no lead-in support. I could easily see a scenario where the 8 o’clock hour winds up doing worse for NBC than the 10.
All of this is sort of a band-aid, of course: a way of patching some of their holes while getting some press attention while doing so. Next season, with Carell gone from The Office and both CBS and ABC surpassing them in the live-action comedy department, NBC is going to have to make some serious decisions about how to restructure their lineup. In a way, this new decision might at least be a hopeful sign in one way: it shows a flicker of understanding that the magic of “NBC on Thursday” is gone and that they need to try something different.
Also, I have a feeling that three hours of single-camera comedy is too unvaried — if they hadn’t been too snobbish to pick up some live-audience shows, they’d have some chance to create variety on their new block. But I suppose if they had any traditional shows, they would get all the blame if the new block didn’t work out. In any case, some would argue that there’s enough differences in approaches and the way these shows have been paired (one hour of mock documentaries; one hour of movie-style “insane workplace” comedies) that there will be variety.