“Those Thursday comedies, which the critics love and we love, tend to be a bit more narrow than we’d ultimately like going forward,” NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt told reporters at a press tour last summer before the start of the 2012-2013 TV season. He added that those shows, like Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Community, and The Office, “tend to be a little bit more narrow and sophisticated than you might want for a broad audience. I hope these new shows we’ve got for the fall and the spring are also clever and also smart, but can also broaden the size of the audience.”
That new batch of falls shows Greenblatt described fell flat on their faces, with not a single one surviving the season. Fall debuts Go On, The New Normal, Guys with Kids, and Animal Practice; midseason comedy 1600 Penn; and Whitney, a part of NBC’s “broad” initiative that survived the previous season, all stumbled in the ratings and failed to impress critics, leading the network to cancel all six series in a massive sitcom bloodbath. Ironically, two NBC sitcoms, Parks and Recreation and Community, survived; both of them the exact kind of “narrow, sophisticated” comedies the network had been trying to stop making.
It’s no surprise that NBC wants shows that can amass larger ratings. While critics and comedy fans alike love shows like Parks and Rec and 30 Rock, they never score even half the ratings of Big Bang Theory or Modern Family. With NBC in third place at the end of last season (ahead of only ABC), the network could use all the hits it can find and the answer might just be finding their own Modern Family instead of the next Parks and Rec.
Still, with NBC’s crop of broad 2012 comedies faltering — and only their “narrow” programs surviving — one might expect the network to dial it back on that shift in focus a little bit for the 2013-14 season. That’s not even close to what happened, though, as NBC’s three new fall sitcoms — The Michael J. Fox Show, Welcome to the Family, and Sean Saves the World — are all family-centric shows that look to be aiming for a wider audience. For the past five years, NBC had housed four of the most critically-acclaimed sitcoms on network TV, Community, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and The Office, on Thursday nights, but over the past two seasons, while the peacock network takes a breaking from greenlighting similar series, rival network Fox has emerged as the new home for shows like that and is poaching a lot of NBC’s talent.
Fox’s current Tuesday night lineup is now home to a block of the kind of shows NBC used to make, with newcomer Brooklyn Nine-Nine joining New Girl and The Mindy Project. Sure, New Girl occupies sort of a middle ground between Old NBC comedies and New NBC comedies, but it’s well-liked by critics and has a decent amount of comedy nerd cred. The Mindy Project is still growing and has received a mixed critical response thus far, but it was created by and stars one of the predominant creative voices behind The Office, Mindy Kaling, and is brimming with potential. Fox’s biggest coup was landing Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a new show from the Parks and Rec team and starring Andy Samberg that’s emerged as the most critically acclaimed new comedy of the fall season thus far. Add Bob’s Burgers, the lovely animated show that’s been quietly airing amidst Fox’s Sunday night block for the past two and a half seasons, on top of that trio of live-action sitcoms and Fox is easily the go-to broadcast network for TV’s most beloved comedies. The kind of network NBC used to be.
What’s most interesting about The Mindy Project and Brooklyn Nine-Nine being on Fox is how full of NBC blood each comedy is on both sides of the camera. Mindy Project was created by and stars Mindy Kaling, one of the stars/big writers on The Office, with The Office’s BJ Novak onboard as a writer/producer and Chris McKenna, Dan Harmon’s right-hand man on Community, having served on the writing staff during the first season. That’s not to mention all the guest stars (Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Ed Helms, Ellie Kemper, Novak) and that the show just nabbed Adam Pally, the star of another comedy nerd favorite network sitcom, Happy Endings, as a series regular this week. Brooklyn Nine-Nine comes from Mike Schur and Dan Goor, the co-creator of NBC’s Parks and Rec and a high-up writer/producer on that show, respectively, while star Andy Samberg is an alumni of NBC’s late night institution SNL.
Both Mindy and Brooklyn are produced by Universal TV, the TV studio of the peacock network’s parent company NBCUniversal, and NBC could have grabbed both shows before Fox did if they weren’t taking their comedy department in a new direction. The Mindy Project was originally developed for NBC before network execs passed on the script, leading Universal TV to take it to Fox, who quickly pounced on the project. In the case of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Universal TV brought the series pitch to the four big networks, all of whom, including NBC, became involved in a four-way bidding war that Fox won. Meanwhile, NBC was busy winning a big bidding war for The Michael J. Fox Show, the contract for which required them to make a commitment to air 22 episodes of the show sight unseen. It’s a move that could just pay off for NBC and give it a major hit if The Michael J. Fox Show is received well when it premieres next week.
Despite Fox’s midseason plans to not add any more comedies from alumni of NBC’s critical darlings and the fact that the network is airing Dads, the show TV reviewers are dogpiling on this season, it looks like there are plenty more Old NBC-esque shows in Fox’s future. One of NBC’s most recent comedy blunders was not picking up the pilot to Mulaney, a Lorne Michaels-produced sitcom created by and starring standup/SNL writer John Mulaney that included Martin Short and Elliott Gould in its supporting cast. Over the summer, Fox stepped in and ordered a new version of the Mulaney pilot script. If Fox execs like the script, they’ll pick up the show for a six-episode season. Fox also has potential critic pleasers in development from longtime Community writer/producer Andy Bobrow and another starring Ken Marino that Marino’s writing with his wife/writing partner Erica Oyama.
On top of that, Fox is working on a new series with one of the biggest stars to come out of NBC in recent years: Tina Fey. Last month, the peacock network lost another bidding war to Fox for a sitcom about a womens’ college that starts allowing men for the first that Tina Fey is producing alongside her 30 Rock co-showrunner Robert Carlock and Matt Hubbard, another 30 Rock alum who created the potential new Fox series for Universal TV. Fey has no plans to star in the project as of yet, but she’s attached as a producer.
To be fair, NBC has their own Fey/Carlock comedy in the works and other promising shows in development from Parks and Rec staffer Harris Wittels and Sacha Baron Cohen’s writing partner Dan Mazer that harken back to Old NBC comedies. Time will tell whether NBC’s pendulum will swing back toward critically-acclaimed, smarter series or if they’ll continue to pursue broader stuff, but Tina Fey herself, for one, is not a fan of the network’s new strategy. Fey said in an interview earlier this year, “You know what? They’re wrong, and I’m going to wait that out. What they want is hits, but no one knows what that is.”