Here we go: The perennial May TV ritual known as the upfronts returns Monday, when the broadcast networks will once again trot out a slew of new shows and reveal their freshly remodeled fall prime-time schedules. This year’s ritual comes at the end of a disastrous, possibly tipping-point season for the networks, one in which nearly every returning show declined in the ratings and cable (joined by streaming outlets such as Netflix) continued to grab viewers and buzz. The major networks (except for CBS, which seems to exist in an alternate Nielsen universe) are not just fighting among themselves or cable; they’re practically battling to stay relevant. Still, at least for now, broadcast TV commands a significant audience, making Upfront Week mightily important. That’s why, as always, Vulture will be knee-deep in the hoopla and hype, delivering you our instant verdict on the new schedules, serving up the first video clips of the just-green-lit series, and taking you inside the myriad presentations and parties. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz will also post his first impressions of the new crop of shows. It’s a lot to take in, so all this week, before we head into May Madness, we’ll be giving you our annual assessment of each of the Big Four broadcasters. (As always, no CW report since, like cable networks, it operates on a completely different business model built around vampires and Netflix. Really!) Each scorecard will tell you how the respective networks performed during the 2012-13 season, which pilots are already sparking buzz, the biggest individual headaches bedeviling them, and what they need to do next season to either improve or, at the very least, not plummet even lower. First up: NBC, which once again finds itself hoping that better days are just around the corner.
Where It Stands
We’ve written about NBC’s woes before, at length. There’s just no way to call the 2012-13 season a good one for the Peacock, nor would it be wise to ignore the many obstacles blocking the network from a return to glory. And yet: NBC did have some notable triumphs this season, victories that the network will rightly tout to advertisers next week. The biggest, of course, is the remarkable performance of The Voice: Not only did the singing competition survive NBC’s decision to air the show twice per season, but it also arguably grew stronger. It’s now clearly pulled ahead of Fox’s American Idol to become the No. 1 unscripted show on TV among adults under 50. That will translate into a significant cash infusion over the summer, when NBC starts selling time to advertisers. And while NBC’s overall ratings are down versus last season (by about 4 percent), in part because it had the Super Bowl in 2012, that’s about the same decline as CBS and notably less than the slippage for ABC and Fox. Also, despite the perception that it’s in last place, NBC actually ended up ahead of ABC last season and stands a good chance of doing so this year. It’s also now just one tenth of a ratings point behind second-place Fox among viewers under 50. A big part of this change has been because of the doubling of the amount of The Voice. But it also helped that returning scripted shows Grimm and Parenthood were among just a handful of veteran shows on any network to build audience this season. (Smash, not so much.)
Where NBC faltered this year was in launching successful new shows. Revolution isn’t doing horribly this spring, but it’s down sharply from the fall and has zero buzz. It’s been renewed anyway, as has newcomer Chicago Fire, whose performance on Wednesdays is in some ways more impressive than Revolution: Its ratings are notably lower, but the Dick Wolf drama doesn’t have the massive benefit of following The Voice. Comedies Go On and The New Normal did only okay behind The Voice and completely tanked once the show went on hiatus in the winter. And everything NBC has debuted since the beginning of 2013 has bottomed out. (Even Hannibal, which had a glimmer of hope its first few weeks on the air, has collapsed in the overnight ratings — though the show is doing better once DVR data is factored in, so perhaps it might return.) Of course, NBC’s other broadcast competitors have also had rough seasons, so it’s not as if the Peacock is doing worse than its rivals. But NBC needs to be doing better than staying on par with others. It needed to emerge with undeniable new hits this season, and it didn’t. But hey, how about The Voice?!
Vulture broke the news last summer that Michael J. Fox was returning to TV in a sitcom, and nearly a year later, that project — tentatively (but not cleverly) titled The Michael J. Fox Show — is contractually guaranteed a spot on NBC’s lineup. And while last year NBC passed on a new project from The Office boss Greg Daniels, they did order a half-hour from him starring Office alum Craig Robinson that’s been getting lots of mentions in the Hollywood trades for weeks; given NBC’s love for all things Lorne Michaels right now, it’s also worth keeping an eye on a half-hour from Michaels starring stand-up John Mulaney. (Deadline Hollywood, however, called both pilots “dark horses” late last week). On the drama front, Deadline has called Blacklist, in which James Spader plays a criminal mastermind now working for the Feds, “super-hot.” Any show from J.J. Abrams these days is a strong contender for a series berth, which makes NBC’s Believe (about a girl with special gifts, and the ex-con trying to protect her) a favorite for the fall. And the fact that NBC let word leak out that it’s considering a spinoff of Chicago Fire is a sign that such a show has a good shot; otherwise, why endure all of the bad PR about doubling down on a mediocre show? Expect NBC to also spend a chunk of its upfront touting Tonight Show–host-in-waiting Jimmy Fallon and its upcoming live production of The Sound of Music (starring Carrie Underwood).
What to do with its once-iconic Thursday lineup? The Office won’t be on NBC’s schedule next fall, depriving the network of its biggest comedy hit and longtime Thursday night anchor. (It’s dropped sharply in the ratings since Steve Carell left, but it’s still outperforming every other scripted show on the network, save for Revolution.) We love Parks and Recreation, but ratings-wise, it’s no Office. It’s possible that NBC will try to build a new lineup around the Michael J. Fox comedy, maybe even renewing Matthew Perry’s Go On and relocating it to Thursdays in order to create a Ghosts of “Must-See TV” Past on the night. But with CBS and ABC boasting far stronger Thursday tentpoles (The Big Bang Theory and Scandal/Grey’s Anatomy, respectively), perhaps the Peacock finally goes a different direction on the night. What if The Voice, now that it’s bigger than Idol, were to shift to a Wednesday-Thursday schedule? It would certainly shake things up (and possibly deliver a death blow to Simon Cowell’s buzz-free The X Factor). And NBC could try to launch Fox’s show Thursdays at nine in late fall, behind its one-hour edition of The Voice.
Barack Obama got elected for a second term despite a sluggish economy at least in part because the alternative (Mitt Romney, in case you’ve forgotten about him already) was deemed by many Americans to be unacceptable. NBC is in really bad shape, and we remain worried about its long-term future as a traditional broadcast network. But the one thing it has going for it is that its rivals all have plenty of headaches, too (even CBS). As long as everyone else is struggling mightily, NBC’s misery at least has company.