upfronts 2015

After a Disastrous Season, NBC Is Playing It Safe Next Year

More shows like The Blacklist! Photo: Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Even though NBC will end this season in first place among its target audience of viewers under 50, the last nine months have been pretty much a disaster for the network in terms of developing hits. The fact is, alone among broadcasters, the Peacock didn’t launch a single new show during the 2014–15 campaign that can be considered a legitimate success. Its one announced returning freshman, The Mysteries of Laura, will limp back, but only because NBC knows it can launch only so many new shows in the fall. And yet, despite the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season it had, the Peacock has (probably wisely) decided not to panic, at least based on its very conservative new lineup. Rather than any bold plays, NBC has decided it’s better to follow the drama-heavy game plan it has relied upon for the last few years — but with even more dramas and new versions of past successes.

Part of the reason for NBC’s calm is that, even though its development engine has stalled, it remains TV’s No. 1 network with viewers under 50, mostly because of The Voice and Sunday football. It’s still in much better shape than it was as recently as three years ago. So instead of throwing out the centrist philosophy that turned Chicago Fire and Blacklist into hits, NBC will just pretend last year never happened and go back to its obsession with duplicating the formula behind both of those shows. This means a third installment of Dick Wolf’s latest franchise, Chicago Med, for mid-season. And it explains why two of the three new dramas the network will premiere in the fall — Monday’s Blindspot and Thursday’s The Player — are genetically engineered attempts to appeal to anyone who likes seeing James Spader snarl. In fact, the former, which revolves around a mysterious woman who pairs up with an FBI agent to solve crimes hinted at by tattoos on her body, is basically the exact same show as Blacklist.

It would be easy to mock NBC for trying to tap the same vein again and again, but as CBS has demonstrated with its endless crime procedurals, executing one idea in multiple ways can work quite brilliantly if the shows are done well. Plus, after getting overly twisty this season with shows such as Allegiance and American Odyssey, it’s probably not a bad idea that these new NBC dramas seem less … complicated. Leslie Moonves and CBS Entertainment boss Nina Tassler turned the Eye into a juggernaut by giving middle America a sense of empowerment in an era of terrorist threats and (the perceived) threat of neighborhood crime. NBC, as it has during most of Bob Greenblatt’s tenure as head of the network, is determined to copy the CBS playbook wherever it can. That’s probably smart, though not without some risk: The Eye’s formula has faded a bit in recent years as viewers have started gravitating toward soapier fare on ABC, Fox, and cable. And as Fox proved this year with Empire, TV’s biggest successes almost always come when networks put on shows that break away from what’s already on TV at any given moment.

Whatever one thinks of the creative direction of NBC’s new programming, the way the network has assembled those shows on its fourth-quarter lineup is quite logical and likely to result in ratings gains in key time slots. That’s particularly true on Thursdays, where NBC will try to build on the progress it made this spring by moving Blacklist to 9 p.m. As we’ve noted before, while relocating the Spader show from Mondays may have lost it some same-day viewers, it also gave NBC a foundation upon which it can now build a successful programming block on a night that is extremely important to key advertisers. Putting Heroes Reborn at 8 p.m. probably won’t allow NBC to beat Grey’s Anatomy, but it will almost certainly do better than The Slap or Dateline reruns. And though it could flop just as hard as Allegiance, the clips for The Player, airing at 10 p.m. Thursday, suggest it’s a much better fit. As for Blacklist, critics of the Peacock’s scheduling of the show forget that the series was bleeding viewers last fall, when it was still on Mondays. Audiences were clearly not satisfied with the show’s creative direction. Don’t be shocked if the show’s producers introduce some big new element — a high-profile guest actor in a season-long arc? — to get people to sample the show again.

NBC is also wisely giving up on comedy in the fourth quarter. Yes, technically, there’ll be an hour of sitcoms from 8 to 9 p.m. on Friday — a live version of Undateable and the awful-looking People Are Talking. But as much as we admire the determination of Undateable exec producer Bill Lawrence, as well as his talent, make no mistake: The main reason NBC programmed this block is to avoid headlines screaming, “NBC Abandons Sitcoms!” (That doesn’t mean the stunt won’t work, given the low bar for ratings on Friday. It just means that this is not the future of NBC comedy.) Anyway, instead of throwing on more half-hours on Tuesday behind The Voice, the Peacock will try to launch two new shows on the night. First up will be Best Night Ever With Neil Patrick Harris, which airs at 10 p.m., but will follow two-hour episodes of America’s Got Talent and The Voice for its first four weeks. NBC will then try medical drama Heartbreaker behind The Voice at 9 p.m. in October. This isn’t a dumb move, but given Fox’s slotting of likely young female magnet Scream Queens in the same hour, NBC will probably have to settle for older female viewers. And if ABC should expand to two hours of comedy on Tuesdays, it’ll be even tougher for the Peacock to grab young women.

There are some unknowns in NBC’s schedule. The biggest is how well The Voice holds up as it moves into its fifth year. Its most recent two seasons managed to do fine, despite some predictions the show was headed for an American Idol–like ratings collapse. But even if Voice remains a solid player, particularly as network comedies and dramas suffer big Nielsen declines, it’s not so big anymore that it can make up for NBC’s other woes — or guarantee massive lead-ins for new shows. Plus, even if shows such as Heroes Reborn and Best Night Ever do well, both can only produce a handful of episodes this season. Chicago Med will fill one of those holes fine, but nothing NBC has saved for mid-season seems particularly strong. Overall, there’s nothing about NBC’s plans for the 2015–16 season that screams, “Danger ahead!” But there’s also nothing suggesting the network is about to dramatically strengthen its position.

NBC Is Playing It Safe Next Year