Yesterday, NBC announced that Community would be pulled from its winter schedule. “Oh hells no!” went Twitter, the Internet, Vulture headquarters, Inspector Spacetime aficionados, and every one who likes their sitcoms fast, clever, referential, genre-deconstructing, and to often feature Joel McHale in his undies and Annie’s gif-ready cleavage. “Does this mean Community is canceled? Why would NBC do this? If it’s not canceled, will it be soon? And what will happen to Troy and Abed???” But now it’s time to take a deep breath and not pull an Abed (i.e. freak out about the mid-season benching of your favorite show, in Abed’s case Cougar Town). To help you understand what NBC’s decision means for the future of the show, we’re asking — and answering — the six big questions raised by the scheduling change.
Oh my God, they’ve canceled Community! What are we going to do?
Don’t make me slap you like Dean Pelton would love to slap Jeff Winger: Community has not been canceled. Far from it. The show remains in production on the second half of this season, and NBC insiders say there are absolutely no plans to cut back on the episodes already ordered. A Peacock rep told Vulture yesterday that the network was simply putting the show “on the bench for a bit.” You know what awesome show NBC put “on the bench” for a few months last season? Parks and Recreation. It felt awful to tune in Thursdays last fall and not find Leslie and Ben and Andy and Tom and Ron Effing Swanson enjoying life in TV’s best small town since Mayberry. (The producers were forced to make slideshows for random websites in order to survive.) But just as NBC promised, the show returned. Community will be back as well. What’s more, after last year’s scare, Parks was ultimately renewed for another season. There is every possibility that this scenario could be repeated with Community.
So why did NBC take Community off the air? Couldn’t Whitney have been deep-sixed?
It’s just not that simple. Unlike last year’s decision to bench Parks for the unproven, unworthy Outsourced, NBC’s scheduled shift yesterday was driven mostly by a very admirable goal: turning Up All Night into a bigger hit. Up has been holding its own on Wednesdays. Despite facing monstrous competition from ABC’s well-established The Middle, Fox’s The X Factor, and CBS’s veteran Survivor, Up was posting better ratings at 8 p.m. than more established NBC 8 p.m. shows on other nights, including The Sing-Off, Chuck, and, yes, Community. It was also up about 40 percent from NBC’s (admittedly pathetic) performance in the time slot last season, but given how many other NBC shows are underperforming versus last season, that’s huge. Finally, Up All Night has proven to be particularly powerful when you add in DVR viewership: It’s the most time-shifted comedy on TV right now (on a percentage increase basis), with its adults 18 to 49 rating improving nearly 50 percent.
With Up showing promise, industry experts have been quietly wondering for weeks why NBC hadn’t already shifted the show to its must-see Thursday lineup, particularly with Whitney fading behind The Office. NBC execs have been trying to maintain calm in the face of collapsing numbers, so they obviously decided to hold off making any radical changes until January. But guess what was also waiting to come back on the air in January? Yup, 30 Rock. In order to keep 30 Rock on Thursdays and give Up a well-earned chance on the night, NBC had two options: expand to a six-comedy schedule, with laughs in the 10 p.m. hour, or lose two shows currently on the night. While we think six comedies might have been a wiser move, NBC brass clearly aren’t ready to give up on finding a drama success at 10 p.m. (which is why The Firm will replace Prime Suspect in the slot). So that means ditching two comedies. Whitney, which has been doing better than Community in the ratings, it sadly needs saying, and has a full season order, was moved to Wednesday. The Office is still NBC’s biggest hit on the night, so it wasn’t moving. That left Parks and Community. We don’t know exactly why NBC chose one over the other (the network isn’t commenting), but since Parks took one for the team last season, perhaps NBC felt it only fair to avoid torturing its fans once again. Community fans should at least take solace in the fact that NBC didn’t experiment with one other possible schedule scenario: shifting the show to Wednesdays. That almost certainly would’ve been fatal.
Okay, but this move certainly isn’t a sign of faith in Community, either. NBC might say it’s just resting it, but isn’t it possible that this is just the prelude to inevitable cancellation next May?
No. There are strong incentives for everyone involved to find a way to keep the show in production for a fourth season. And the strongest is spelled s-y-n-d-i-c-a-t-i-o-n. While shows can find an afterlife on cable or on Netflix after just three seasons (see Arrested Development), four seasons, or about 80 episodes, is considered the minimum for more lucrative off-network packages involving both cable and local stations. Indeed, Sony Pictures Television, which co-produced Community with NBC, has been out trying to sell the show to cable networks this fall. As we noted back in September, Sony really, really wants four seasons of the show, and they’ve demonstrated a willingness to go all out to make sure its shows get to syndication. Classic case in point: Til Death, the critically loathed Brad Garrett Fox comedy. It seemed pretty much dead after its third season, but Sony struck a deal with the network that, according to industry insiders, all but paid Fox to keep Death alive for a fourth season. If we believed in conspiracy theories, we might even start wondering whether NBC brass chose to bench Community over Parks in part because they wanted to have as much leverage as possible over Sony when it came time to negotiate a renewal deal next spring. TV can be a very brutal business.
Beyond the financial motives of syndication, let’s remember that, while Community is no powerhouse, NBC is still a network with virtually no pulse. This season, the network has never finished higher than third place on any weeknight (Monday through Thursday); it’s ranked fourth on Thursdays — Thursdays! — every week this season. It has just one show in the top twenty among adults 18 to 49 (The Office), and its next highest series, Law & Order: SVU, is ranked No. 45. Community continues to do well in DVR ratings, adding nearly 50 percent more viewers via time-shifting. It’s also got a massively loyal fan base and is a massive media darling. Given how many woes NBC has, would it really make sense to dump a fan favorite that generates endless reservoirs of positive publicity in favor of yet another unproven sitcom, or a second season of Whitney? The fact that NBC boss Bob Greenblatt found a way to bring back Chuck for one more go-round suggests he’ll be open to at least ordering thirteen more episodes for next season, even if they have to air under the banner of Community: Summer School.
Whew. So you’re saying a fourth season is likely and this is all just posturing? Community is safe! Huzzah!
Now, now: Don’t go counting your chicken fingers before they’re, um … fried. We do not live in a Dreamatorium. The reality is Community isn’t a ratings giant, even after three seasons. (We’ll pause here to bitch about the fact that NBC has never given the show much support, and that save for airing its first three episodes after The Office, the Peacock has expected Community to be a self-starter at 8 p.m. for its entire life.) If Up All Night takes off even a little bit behind The Office, and NBC has a strong spring (The Voice is even bigger, Smash is a surprise hit, Awake actually gets on the air and becomes the new 24), then Community could be collateral damage. And while new NBC owner Comcast has until now been willing to give Greenblatt pretty much as much money as he wants to spend on programming, it could get nervous next May and decide to tighten budgets. If Greenblatt has to choose between a promising new drama (that he developed, and thus will get credit for if it works), and one more season of a show that will never be a hit … well, the Greendale gang could end up graduating early. At least one veteran showbiz insider we talked to after NBC’s moves yesterday thinks this would be a mistake. “NBC blew it,” our wrinkled pro e-mailed us. “They continue to look at Community as a ratings underperformer, as opposed to a show with a wildly devoted fan (and critical) base.” If the worst happens to Community, the show would join a long list of beloved series that made it to three seasons, and no further. (Unless, of course, Netflix decides to save it. Quick, everyone: Send an e-mail to Netflix promising to un-cancel your subscription if they save Community!)
This all makes sense. But one thing doesn’t: Why didn’t NBC mention Community at all in its mid-season schedule press release? Usually networks offer up some boilerplate like, “Such and such will return later in the season.” But NBC was totally silent. That can’t be good.
We do not pretend to know what goes on in the head of network executives. Why did CBS insist on calling its new Rob Schneider comedy ¡Rob!? If ABC canceled Charlie’s Angels, why did it keep airing new episodes through November? It could be that NBC’s media relations team simply had to rush out a scheduling press release before too many sites started reporting its various moves. Or maybe Greenblatt didn’t want to offer up fake-sounding, easy-to-attack quotes about “loving” Community when he considers the show very much on the bubble. Or, finally, if you believe those conspiracy theories we mentioned above, NBC may have remained silent simply to increase the paranoia level among Sony execs.
Ugh. All right, bottom line: What are the odds of a season four of Community?
We still think it’s about 70–30 that the show returns next season in one form or another. While the show’s ratings have drifted dangerously low this fall, just about everything on NBC is headed in a downward direction. Sony might have to offer cost concessions to NBC, a cast member or two might have to go (seriously, we love Chevy Chase and Ken Jeong, but at this point, can you argue that they’re essential to the show?). But if Chuck and Friday Night Lights were able to tough it out against all odds, the Human Beings should be all right. At the very least, we’re hopeful NBC will give creator Dan Harmon time to end the show properly, be it this season or next. As our industry vet noted, perhaps “all of this will be worth it to see how meta the show gets about its own impending death.”