NBC: Winning Through Failing

I forgot to mention the third reason NBC renewed Community (which, I am now given to understand, is revolutionary because it uses a formula). We know the two main reasons: it’s one of very few good shows NBC has, and its ratings were not as bad, given the time slot and the young and affluent audience, as they might seem. The other reason is that the network’s comedy development slate in 2010-11 was one of the worst in living memory, essentially giving Community a reprieve because the network sank so much money into so many terrible new comedies.

To understand how bad NBC’s comedy pickups were, look at the network’s announcement of its summer lineup. Reality shows, mostly, but what’s not there are three shows that NBC picked up and produced for the 2010-11 season. Love Bites, an hour-long quasi-anthology comedy that was retooled several times, and the half-hours The Paul Reiser Show and Friends With Benefits, aren’t even being given the indignity of a summer burn-off yet. That hurts so much. The new NBC comedies that actually made it to air were Perfect Couples, which is doomed, and Outsourced, which has arguably been treated a little shabbily: it was doing OK, in a time-slot-hit sort of way, after The Office until the network decided to move it to 10:30 after 30 Rock, effectively killing it. It’s not a great show but it’s not terrible either, and was certainly the best of the new NBC comedies this season. But when a network picks up five new comedies and Outsourced is the closest thing to a succeess, it’s not having a great year.

It would be tempting for me to say that things might have been different if NBC had not enforced what was essentially a single-camera-only policy in its pickups this season, but I doubt if anything else would have been any more successful. NBC doesn’t need shows in one format or another, it needs hits, and the more it tries to create them, it seems, the farther it gets from doing so. Part of NBC’s problem with comedy development is that the people at the network, more even than at most networks, don’t seem to have any idea which comedies are potential hits and which ones are cult shows at best. The warning sign with Outsourced wasn’t that NBC picked it up, but that Jeff Zucker reportedly believed it had a better chance for mainstream success than Parks & Recreation, which is why he benched P&R in favour of Outsourced for the first part of the season. But while P&R may not become a mainstream hit, its documentary format and small-town America setting at least give it a kinship with shows that have been hits. Outsourced is basically Community in a foreign country. It was never going to be a big mainstream hit, yet the network seemed to be placing an inordinate amount of faith in its popular appeal.

Granted, every network except one is pretty bad at figuring out what’s going to be a mainstream hit, and it’s even harder with comedies. (CBS can manufacture drama hits by picking up dramas that are exactly like the ones it already has — but Friends and How I Met Your Mother clones usually perform disappointingly.) But there’s something special about NBC’s bad ideas. ABC was foolish to think that Hank was a likely hit, but it’s a typical mistake: thinking we’d want to see a familiar star even though he was in an unsuitable role in a terrible script. But NBC is the network that bought Paul Reiser in a Curb Your Enthusiasm type situation, and this was reportedly NBC head Jeff Gaspin’s favourite comedy pilot of the season.

I honestly have no idea if Bob Greenblatt, the man now in charge of the network, has better instincts than this (since it’s been a while since he was at a broadcast network, and at Showtime he obviously steered away from out-and-out comedies, favouring half-hour dramedies instead). But what NBC needs is not to dump all its cult comedies; it needs at least one mainstream hit comedy — be it multi-camera like Big Bang Theory or single-camera like Modern Family. My reading of the network is that they have a mistaken reading of the way they developed hits in the past, thinking that shows like 30 Rock can eventually develop into mega-hits because Seinfeld and Cheers started slow and built popularity. It’s only the same thing if there are no differences in popular appeal from one good show to another.

Anyway, since I mentioned Outsourced, one of the show’s writers has an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times defending it against charges of racism. I think the show’s problems have more to do with the subject of outsourcing itself, such a depressing subject to American viewers. It’s very much like Hank, the worst comedy of 2009-10, was doomed from the start not only by the miscasting of Kelsey Grammer but the attempt to create sympathy for an ex-millionaire in such a terrible economic climate. Outsourced is a much better show than Hank and accordingly did better in the ratings, but a core issue with the subject matter is hard to overcome, short of a full-scale retool (which in this case would probably involve moving the whole thing to America).

Update: The Paul Reiser Show has been slotted, replacing Perfect Couples; Friends With Benefits and Love Bites remain unseen for now.

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