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With the TV Season Well Under Way, What Went Wrong for NBC?

Up All Night, NBC's rare hit.

We're in the sixth week of the new TV season, and you know what that means: All the excitement surrounding the slew of new fall shows has been replaced by cold, hard reality. Such as: Dinosaurs are not enough to make for compelling viewing; Charlie's Angels should've remained in TV heaven; and despite your undying love for Sarah Michelle Gellar, you're probably never going to get around to watching those episodes of Ringer that are clogging your DVR. And Vulture has looked beyond these three immutable truths, taking stock of the 2011–12 season to date to figure out just what we can learn from how the networks have fared so far. All this week, Vulture will check in on how each of the Big Four networks are doing, starting today with NBC, which remains stuck in Nielsen hell. How bad are things? Read on.

What's working: Well, Sunday night football continues to draw massive tune-in. And against most preseason expectations, the new Will Arnett–Christina Applegate–Maya Rudolph comedy Up All Night is not struggling in its role as the lead-off hitter for the network's Wednesday comedy outpost. While it's hardly a breakout hit, it often draws the same or better adults 18 to 49 ratings than any other NBC 8 p.m. weeknight show; it makes you wonder how it'd be doing if NBC had spent nearly as much time hyping it as it did Whitney. While the show needs to find a consistent voice (is it a family comedy? A 30 Rock spinoff in LA? A Cougar Town–ish meditation on grown-up Gen Xers?), there's no reason Up can't evolve into a modest success. As for the aforementioned comedy from Whitney Cummings, well: NBC has given it (and Up) a vote of confidence by ordering a full season of episodes. Call us single-camera snobs, but we're not convinced Whitney is clicking with Thursday-night viewers any more than Outsourced did last fall.

What's not: Pretty much everything else on NBC. Seriously, the Peacock is having a truly awful fall. Not only have most of its launches fallen flat, but perhaps even more worrisome is how some of the few remaining tentpoles left over from the General Zod Zucker era are also crumbling. The Biggest Loser is down about 22 percent versus last fall and has shed young viewers almost every week this season. Law & Order: SVU is down about 20 percent and is getting its butt whipped by both CSI and ABC newcomer Revenge. By comparison, The Office is doing pretty well: While its season premiere was the show's lowest-rated since the series' 2005 opener, its ratings are off a relatively modest 10 percent or so from last fall, and on a par with where they were last May (right after you-know-who departed). It's also the only show on NBC right now that regularly cracks Nielsen's top twenty with viewers under 50. As for the frosh, The Playboy Club and Free Agents were canceled after a couple of airings, while Prime Suspect is only sticking around because, well, it's a good show and NBC ain't got much else. Finally, one more sign of how NBC is truly rolling in the deep: The Peacock's most-watched series is sophomore Harry's Law, and during the week ending October 16, it just barely cracked Nielsen's top 40.

What's next: Prayer — plus the return of The Voice and the promising Smash. The good news for NBC is that in this time of crisis, it appears to have a steady hand on the till. The old NBC regime likely would've blown up its entire schedule by now; by contrast, Peacock chief Bob Greenblatt seems to be the model of calm. While he's wisely cut bait when it was clear no hope existed (see Agents and Playboy), he's doubled down on shows he thinks might yet have a future. That's why Prime Suspect is airing at 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday this week. It's also why he didn't rush Fear Factor on the air to artificially pump up ratings in the meaningless November "sweeps," but is instead waiting until December, allowing plenty of time to get viewers stoked for its return (hey, lots of people watch Wipeout). Greenblatt's big hope now is that The Voice returns in February at least as strong as it exited last June, and that Smash can appeal to those who don't regularly read Playbill. Before that, NBC's only two remaining hopes this calendar year are that Grimm (bowing this Friday) is a sleeper hit and that folks still have a soft spot for Fear Factor.

Photo: NBC