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upfronts 2014

Upfronts Pregame: NBC Built Its Surprising Lead Brick by Brick

Time is a flat circle, which is why the television industry’s decades-old rite of spring is once more nearly upon us: Upfront week begins next Monday. If you’re just tuning in, the upfronts are when the broadcast networks unveil a slew of new programming for the year ahead, while conveniently ignoring the bloody carcasses of the previous season’s failed efforts. (Cable networks and digital outlets have been performing a more low-key version of the same dance for the past few weeks.) While the ad buyers of Madison Avenue are the main target for all this hype, networks have increasingly made upfront week a consumer-friendly affair, taking advantage of all the media attention to begin marketing their new wares to the masses. As we have each of the past four years, Vulture will be out in force covering TV’s marathon of self-congratulation and salesmanship. So, bookmark our handy 2014 Upfronts situation room, home to our knee-jerk reactions to the new shows and schedules, our first-look clips of all the fresh programming, and our insider coverage of the presentations and after-parties.

But before the television industry’s big week begins, we’ve got our own tradition ’round these parts: our annual series of pregame reports analyzing how each of the Big Four broadcasters are looking as May Madness begins. (Nope, no CW: They’ve got a different business model that the other guys, more like a cable network. For what it’s worth, however, the C-Dub had a pretty decent year and is in much better shape than it’s been in a while.) These daily rundowns will give you the skinny on how the individual networks performed during the 2013–14 season, what factors are stressing each of them out heading into next week, and which pilots seem to have the best prospects of moving forward to series. First up: NBC, which may have finally found its groove after a decade of turmoil.

Where It Stands
A little more than a year ago, Vulture posed the question, “Is it possible to save NBC, or has it passed the point of no return?” We’d argue it’s still too soon to declare the network “saved,” but this much is certain: The Peacock is in dramatically better shape these days. Instead of being stuck in third or fourth place, as it had been for all of this ‘10s (or whatever we’re calling this decade), NBC is actually poised to end the current season in first place among its targeted demo group of adults under 50. Let that sink in: NBC is No. 1. The last time the network won a season outright, Twitter and the iPhone had yet to be invented, President Obama was still a member of the Illinois legislature, and Facebook was just a few months old. While it’s true that NBC’s seasonal averages got a boost from its two weeks of Olympics coverage, the network remains in first even minus the Games. It’s also the only Big Four network showing ratings growth this season, with overall audience up around 20 percent, again even after excluding the Olympics. And perhaps most impressive, it’s showing growth across the board, rather than because of just one or two shows: NBC’s ratings are up by double digits on every night of the week, save Thursday and Sunday.

A number of factors have helped NBC bounce back from the brink, the biggest of which is The Blacklist. Airing behind The Voice got viewers to sample the show, but unlike past occupants of the 10 p.m. Monday slot (Smash, Revolution), the James Spader thriller has managed to recruit its own audience. Not only has it done well when The Voice is on hiatus, but The Blacklist also stands as TV’s most DVR’d show, with 6.1 million viewers watching after Monday’s telecast. It’s undeniably the biggest hit of the season. NBC has also done decently with another freshman drama, the Dick Wolf–produced Chicago P.D. More than a few industry types scoffed at the decision to launch a spinoff of Chicago Fire less than a year after that show premiered, but P.D. is trouncing Nashville and is within striking distance of CSI in the 10 p.m. Wednesday slot. And while The Voice has seen its momentum slow a bit this season, it’s surpassed American Idol to become the dominant reality show on TV and remains a powerhouse despite airing two cycles a year.

In addition to launching some new program assets, NBC’s mini-comeback has also benefited from savvy scheduling and strategy. Its big bet on a live performance of The Sound of Music was a massive hit (and has already inspired a clone from rival Fox, which will do Grease live next year). Moves such as shifting Parenthood to Thursdays, Chicago Fire to Tuesdays and even the so-so rated Revolution to Wednesday have all boosted NBC’s ratings in previously weak time slots. Even its late-night transition worked flawlessly: Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers have seen their ratings come back to earth after huge starts, but Fallon is still doing better than Leno was, and the buzz around both shows is great.

After lurching from crisis to crisis and changing strategies every few years under Jeff Zucker, NBC is now being run by adults willing to play a long game in an attempt to keep NBC viable. Not everything is working, of course. The decision to try generic comedies on Thursdays resulted in awful ratings and negative buzz, and showed what happens when a network strays too far from its brand (see also: Ironside). Sunday night’s American Dream Builders, the network’s big attempt to clone Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, has been an epic failure. Plus, NBC’s rise to No. 1 also owes a great deal to its rivals stumbling so badly. We argued a year ago that NBC’s best hope was “that ABC and Fox sink low enough to not make the Peacock seem so dismal.” Well, Fox and ABC had pretty awful years, while longtime leader CBS saw its ratings decline more than any other network. Those declines, coupled with NBC’s smart moves and the glow of the Olympics, have allowed the Peacock to put the rest the rumors of its demise — at least for now.

Buzziest Projects
The combination of TV Star with a capital s Debra Messing and prolific producer Greg Berlanti has made Mysteries of Laura a front-runner since it was announced, and the Hollywood trades confirm the procedural drama (in which Messing plays a homicide detective/mother of twins) is on track for a series green light later this week. It’s also hard to imagine NBC not going forward with Katherine Heigl–led CIA thriller State of Affairs. On the comedy front, both The Hollywood Reporter and Deadline have been predicting Peacock love for Marry Me, or as we like to think of it, Happy Endings: Year of Penny (the show is from Happy creator David Caspe, and stars Casey Wilson and Ken Marino as newlyweds). And if NBC wants star-driven comedies, it’s got the Rob Lowe half-hour The Pro (also starring Rob Riggle) and Mary-Louise Parker’s Feed Me (NBC chief Bob Greenblatt cast Parker in Weeds).

Biggest Headache
The same one we’ve listed here the past two years: what the hell to do with Thursday nights, specifically the network’s comedy block. As noted above, mixing one beloved-but-little-watched comedy (Parks and Recreation and Community) with new shows boasted allegedly “broad” concepts (Welcome to the Family) or fronted by big stars (Michael J. Fox, Sean Hayes) was disastrous. NBC execs have to be asking themselves right now whether it really makes sense to keep comedy on Thursday night: Nothing the network has tried since The Office has become a major hit, and there’s zero chance Parks (or Community, if it’s even renewed) will grow in what would likely be their final seasons. Likewise, with The Big Bang Theory still actually setting ratings records this season, debuting new comedies (at least it in the 8 p.m. hour) would be suicidal. (The fact that CBS will have a package of Thursday night football games on in the fall makes it even tougher to debut something new.) Perhaps NBC plays things safe by cobbling together some sort of comedy lineup for the fall, and then trying to shift to a drama lineup in January, when ABC starts airing a lot of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal reruns, and Fox’s American Idol limps back for what could very well be its farewell season. (One thing that needn’t change: 10 p.m. Thursdays, where Parenthood has boosted NBC’s time slot average a whopping 84 percent vs. last year. It’s supposedly an expensive show to produce, but it’s an asset on a night where NBC currently has none.)

Bottom Line
NBC still has plenty of big holes in its lineup, from the aforementioned Thursday troubles to the black hole that is its Sunday lineup once NFL season is over. And while The Voice is still a big, broad hit, NBC’s decision to air two cycles per year could eventually haunt the network if viewers start getting bored with spinning chairs (and the musical chairs among judges). The same headwinds battering all the broadcast networks continue to threaten NBC as well, but NBC boss Robert Greenblatt has done a masterful job so far at rebuilding NBC brick by brick.

Photo: NBC