I mentioned this on a message board the other day, but I thought it was worth a quick post as well, if only because it’s the latest chapter in the strange history of the NBC network. to understand what’s going on with NBC trying to reunite Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, we may have to look back to an era when Roseanne was still on the air, and another network was trying to pick its ratings up out of the basement. In the mid-’90s, Leslie Moonves took over CBS, which had been floundering pretty much since M*A*S*H went off the air; it had a few hits in the ’80s, but few huge ones, and by the ’90s most of its mid-level hits were gone. Just before Moonves came in, the network management attempted to revamp the network’s whole image by adding a lot of young, sexy shows in the mold of the hits on NBC and Fox (most notoriously, a soap created by Melrose Place and 90210 mastermind Darren Star), but they all failed.
Moonves’s strategy for turning CBS around was built around doing what other networks had done, but in a different way: he signed up NBC’s former superstar, Bill Cosby, to do a CBS sitcom. And after some cast replacements, Phylicia Rashad wound up playing his wife again. According to Bill Carter’s Desperate Networks, this was part of a Moonves plan of “signing up stars who had had hits on NBC and ABC when they were younger. As they hit their forties or fifties, Moonves would bring them into CBS.” Some of these shows were bombs (remember Jason Alexander’s CBS show?), and none were huge hits, though Ted Danson’s Becker stuck around a while. (And, of course, the network turned an NBC castoff, JAG, into a franchise.) But it was a way of plugging the network’s holes while the executives tried to come up with some actual hits. The idea was that CBS could not completely escape its identity as the middle-aged network, and to try and change its image completely would simply drive away the viewers they had. So they courted the middle-aged stars from more successful networks, who would appeal to their core audience while also hopefully bringing in a few ABC and NBC viewers who had grown up watching them in their prime. They were also able to use Cosby‘s middling success to provide a lead-in for Everybody Loves Raymond, which turned out to be the big hit they really needed.
ABC recently did something a little bit similar, at least on Wednesday nights. Dissatisfied with the comedies they’d been doing for years, they built a night of comedy around stars who had been associated with other networks: Courteney Cox, Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, and (sort of) Ed O’Neill. Now, as so often in TV, the big names don’t guarantee success: the biggest hit from that bunch was Modern Family, where most of the actors weren’t big names on any network, while the only bomb was the Kelsey Grammer show. (Actually, come to think of it, that lineup was successful almost in inverse proportion to how big the stars were: Grammer was a bomb; Cox is on a bubble show with a cult following; Heaton, who never got top billing in anything before, is a solid success, and Modern Family is a smash.) But it was a way of announcing to the world that something had changed at ABC.
NBC is the most insular of the major networks, the one that usually promotes from within — either from the main network or the affiliated cable channels. 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation promoted their stars from Saturday Night Live. Community gave Joel McHale a vehicle after successfully appearing on E!’s The Soup. This season’s much-maligned attempts to return to Laugh Track Dinosaur Comedy™ are also from the E! family, with late-night host Chelsea Handler and her frequent guest Whitney Cummings. Even Smash has a lot of within-the-family casting, not just Debra Messing but also Katharine McPhee, who may have gotten her start on Idol but was soon signed by NBC for guest shots and unsold pilots, as the network tried to make her into a star. The network’s great Super Bowl promo was about the mythology of NBC as a big family. This has its charm, and these talents were worth promoting (yes, including Whitney Cummings). But when a network has been in fourth place for such a long time, some doubts have to be raised about its ability to identify people the Masses want to see every week. And because they’re in fourth place, the young stars that all four networks are after — the Zooey Deschanels, the Kat Denningses — will usually sign with some other network. So what’s an executive to do?
The Roseanne thing may never make it beyond the pilot, and its likelihood of being as good as her original series approaches zero. But the point of getting her, and of going after Goodman for the role of the husband, seems to be similar to the Cosby gambit. You can’t get the big stars and your own development is too niche-y (an older niche at CBS in the ’90s, a younger niche at NBC today), so you look around for stars from the glory days of other networks. If the show makes it to air, you have a chance to attract some people who didn’t watch your network before. If it doesn’t get picked up, or it flops, at least you got some publicity.
I wouldn’t bet on Greenblatt’s ability to turn NBC around the way Moonves, his former boss at Showtime, turned CBS around. Moonves had a slightly less difficult task in two ways. One, there was less competition in 1995 (even with the launch of the WB and UPN). Two, adding young viewers to a base of older viewers is easier than what NBC needs to do, which is to “broaden out” while keeping a loyal and engaged young viewer base. Also, Greenblatt made his name as a cable programmer and still comes off as nostalgic for the smaller audiences that cable requires; Moonves, like his old Lorimar buddies Tom Miller and Bob Boyett, will do just about anything he thinks the mass audience wants. When NBC tries to pander the way CBS does, it just comes off looking desperate; there’s an art to being anti-art.
Still, CBS got back into the game partly because it was lucky; Survivor and CSI were basically luck. (Well, that, and the law of competitive balance: the networks with fewer big hits may wind up with the ideas that the #1 network doesn’t have room for.) If Greenblatt can buy some time until NBC’s luck changes, then he could be the guy who turned the network around. And if he can’t come up with any stopgap shows, he’s going to get fired anyway. The idea is that until a network finds its own identity, it may sometimes need to feed off the previously-established identities of other networks.