Has NBC Passed the Point of No Return?

It’s impossible to exaggerate just how bad a 2013 NBC is having. Over the last four weeks, the network has debuted three new series (1600 Penn, Deception, Do No Harm) and watched as viewers rejected each of them. New Tuesday comedies Go On and The New Normal, which seemed to be finding an audience in the fall, have seen their demo ratings cut nearly in half since losing their lead-in of The Voice. And then there’s Smash, which NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt last summer called “an unqualified success” and top lieutenant Jen Salke labeled “highly anticipated by its fans”: It returned this week down nearly 40 percent from its May 2012 finale, and more than 70 percent versus its premiere a year ago. In less than 30 days, whatever slow momentum NBC seemed to be building since Greenblatt’s January 2011 arrival has almost completely vanished. Once again, NBC seems destined to finish the season an also-ran, just as it has every year since Friends went away in 2004. It’s time to ask the question: Is it possible to save NBC, or has it passed the point of no return?

Yes, the media are always rushing to write obits for broadcast networks: Before the dream season when ABC launched Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, and Lost, that network was declared a hopeless mess; prior to Leslie Moonves’s arrival at CBS nearly twenty years ago, some were sure the Tiffany network was permanently tarnished. “It’s a cyclical business,” TV analysts love to declare, and they’ve generally been right. But that TV truism was coined in an era before hundreds of cable networks, DVRs, VOD, and Emmy-caliber series that arrive thirteen episodes at a time and exist in a cloud somewhere. ABC’s 2004 megarally came back when barely 7 million TV homes had DVRs; now nearly 50 million do. Netflix Instant didn’t even exist. And while original programming on basic cable has been a factor for years now, past network comebacks occurred before cable shows started outdrawing everything else on broadcast (as AMC’s The Walking Dead did this winter among key demo groups). It was far easier to climb out of the Nielsen basement when there was just a handful of legitimate competitors. Now NBC is fighting for eyeballs at a time when millions of viewers don’t even watch TV on TV.

This is not to say that NBC is incapable of drawing a crowd, now or in the future. Tens of millions still tune in every Sunday during the fall to watch football on the network. The right alchemy of format and celebrity judges turned The Voice into an unexpected hit two years ago. And NBC had the biggest drama launch of the fall season when it put Revolution behind The Voice. All of that, plus a strong summer promotional platform from the summer Olympics as well as subpar performances from its rivals, let NBC briefly slip into first place. But as we noted in November, this unique mix was just a blip, not a permanent uptick: Football only lasts four months, and The Voice needs to take a few months off between cycles. NBC’s problem is that it has so many holes in its schedule, and so many fading veteran shows, that achieving a lasting critical mass could simply prove impossible.

This should become clear in late March, when The Voice and Revolution both return. NBC’s ratings will see an immediate lift on Mondays and Tuesdays, but the network will likely remain a dead zone for most of the rest of the week. For this, NBC can still blame Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman: Even though both left the Peacock long ago, their legacy of seeking short-term fixes and not investing in quality programs has left NBC without a basic foundation on which to stand. Take a look at CBS, currently TV’s No. 1 network in both viewers and adults under 50. It’s actually had a disastrous year in terms of launching new shows (Partners and Made in Jersey are dead; Vegas now loses half its NCIS: Los Angeles lead-in). But it has such a sound structure, with established and very long-running successes on almost every night, that it’s been able to brush off these failures.

While NBC’s long-term crisis can be traced to past regimes, it’s impossible for Greenblatt and his team to avoid responsibility for just how deep a mess the Peacock finds itself in this February. All of the 2013 flops are on him, from pet project Smash to the viewer rejections of the two new dramas and 1600 Penn. Despite his reputation for developing quality series at Showtime, Greenblatt chose pretty pedestrian fare when he green-lighted Deception and Do No Harm. He also stuck by Smash, calling it (as noted above) an “unqualified success” even despite what he admitted was a rocky season one creatively (and continued audience erosion last spring). And it was Greenblatt who also made the decision to limit Parenthood to just fifteen episodes this season, despite plenty of evidence the show was finding an audience, and even after it returned to strong ratings this fall. The show is extraordinarily expensive, but Greenblatt could have ordered budget cuts or simply accepted the high price tag as the necessary cost of keeping a successful show on the air. (More Parenthood might also have allowed NBC to launch one less new show this winter.) NBC has also treated one of last season’s few success stories with contempt: While critics didn’t have much use for Grimm, it immediately brought in a solid and loyal core fan base. But the network has been all over the map with the show, scheduling episodes in August for some reason and keeping it on the low-visibility Friday night when all evidence pointed to possible growth if it shifted to an earlier night in the week.

None of this makes Greenblatt a particularly “bad” head of NBC. Moonves and his team programmed dog after dog during their early years running the Eye; in 1997 they even wasted boatloads of money on an ill-fated scheme to pick up some of ABC’s TGIF leftovers in a bid to become a family programming powerhouse. And former ABC bosses Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne struck out time and again at ABC, causing Disney chief Bob Iger to fire them both; a few months after they got the boot, three programs they had developed became out-of-the-box hits (yup: Lost, DH, and Grey’s). It’s absolutely possible that new successes are just a few months away for NBC, perhaps in the form of the network’s new Michael J. Fox comedy or its reboot of Alice in Wonderland. But the big-picture damage may be irreparable: Even if these shows work, the odds of them being game-changers are slim in today’s TV environment. If they manage to become popular hits, NBC is so deep in the hole that it might not be enough to make a difference. The most it can hope for is that ABC and Fox sink low enough to not make the Peacock seem so dismal. If not for Idol, Fox would likely be headed for fourth this season, even with The Following, which, though considered a hit, is pulling numbers that would have gotten it put on cancellation watch as recently as five years ago. And while ABC has done a little bit better generating mild successes (Once Upon a Time), it’s not exactly on fire, and its biggest hits are losing viewers quickly. (CBS is almost certain to be the Last Network Standing whenever the broadcast model finally keels over.)

So what’s a network to do? In the short term — i.e., the next few months — NBC’s wisest move is probably to simply avoid panicking. Pulling Do No Harm, Deception, and Smash all at once isn’t an option since NBC simply doesn’t have the product to fill all that space. It could cancel one (probably Do No Harm) and shift another (Deception) to a less high-profile night to burn off its remaining episodes. Grimm isn’t scheduled to return until Friday, March 8, but NBC might want to move that up a week and consider putting the show on Monday or Thursdays. NBC might also want to consider moving one of its planned summer reality shows up a few months, assuming they’re ready.

TV industry insiders wincing at NBC’s troubles have been throwing out criticism and suggested fixes. Some say NBC may be headed for yet another management shake-up, or that Greenblatt simply hasn’t been up to the task of creating broad appeal shows. (“He’s from Showtime, what did anyone expect?” one veteran programmer told us Wednesday.) They note that NBC hasn’t tried any multi-camera comedies (forgetting Whitney and Guys With Kids) and hasn’t been aggressive enough developing procedurals (a fair criticism, though Greenblatt did okay the mildly successful Chicago Fire). And they cite Smash as an example of Greenblatt’s tunnel vision, of his ignoring the evidence that viewers aren’t into a show (even though the most successful network executives have been those who passionately stick by projects in which they believe).

These are all valid points, and we’re not trying to shield Greenblatt and his team from responsibility for their failures. But the critiques also smack of old logic. Yes, the fundamental things still apply in TV, at least to a point: Network shows should be relatable, scheduling matters, and lead-ins make a difference. But today’s NBC is not the Peacock of Brandon Tartikoff or even Warren Littlefield, where the star power of a Bill Cosby or Jerry Seinfeld could light up an entire night or week. It may be time to start facing the hard truth that the old TV model is crumbling, and quickly. Past comeback strategies might not work, and better days may not be just around the corner if only we can get that one big hit or put in place that smart executive who turned around ABC back in the nineties! It could be time for NBC parent Comcast to start mulling more radical changes. To wit: One of the Peacock’s biggest problems is the many holes in its schedule; it’s running to fix leaks all over the place. Should it follow Fox’s lead and cut back its prime time to just two hours per night rather than three? (This is sort of what Zucker was aiming for when he programmed Jay Leno at ten.) After all, one of the reasons AMC and FX have done so well is because they don’t churn out twenty-plus hours of “product” every week (and likewise, cable giants TNT and USA have had more failures of late as they’ve put on a record number of shows).

Industry insiders we’ve talked to dismiss this notion of cutting back, noting that NBC would lose hundreds of millions in ad revenue and arguing that some of its affiliates might not even want the responsibility of programming an extra hour. Fine, but a more focused NBC, one with fewer holes to fill, might ultimately be a more profitable network. And let’s face it: Many smart, very well-paid executives have tried to cure the Peacock patient over the last decade, and so far, they’ve all failed. Isn’t it worth considering the possibility that NBC’s woes are about something larger than just executive incompetence or the wrong programming mix? Or that massive changes need to be made? Networks can pretend all they want that the broadcast model isn’t broken, but denial didn’t forestall the end of big record-store chains, and it didn’t save Borders Books or Hostess. Five or ten years from now, there’s a good chance we’ll recognize NBC as the Peacock in the coal mine, the first one to fall as the broadcast era came to a close — or, at least, morphed into something far different than what we’ve known for the past 60 years.

Has NBC Passed the Point of No Return?