Channel Guide: Is NBC Ready To Regain The Top Spot?

For years now NBC has laid dormant in fourth place behind CBS, ABC and FOX. The decline was slow and gradual, but once it became the butt of every Leno/Conan joke and started showing in the networks programming, it became clear that NBC was in a bad place.

Then a glimmer of hope shined through, after years of mismanagement at the hands of Jeff Zucker, the network president was kicked out by new parent company Comcast who took over the majority share of NBCUniversal from General Electric this past year. The new bosses first move? Hire people that won’t just seal the cracks in the wall, but instead will take a sledgehammer to the house and build a new one from the ground up.

The result? The hiring of former Showtime president Robert Greenblatt. Greenblatt is the man responsible for shows like Weeds, Dexter and Nurse Jackie. So for the first time in years, it looks like NBC has someone behind the wheel who has mastered the art of precision driving.

And that bring us today and the recently announced fall 2011-2012 schedule. A schedule that is a… re-tooling to put it lightly. As new Broadcasting Chairman Ted Harbert said at the upfront on Monday, the schedule is “a little less reinvention of the wheel and a lot more Broadcasting 101” which is probably the best way to describe it. Because what it appears is that the fourth place network is finally embracing the two words they have avoided for years “counter-programming.”

Let’s just take a look at this past season as a clear example of the things NBC was doing wrong. Starting on Mondays, the network put decent performer Chuck on the night’s lead in. Now, that’s not that big of an issue since the show has existed in that slot for a while, but they followed Chuck with what would be the disaster that is The Event (by the way, we never found out what The Event was, so fuck you, false advertising). The Event was then followed by the well-written police procedural Chase. So let’s run that back for a second. We have genre show – genre show – procedural in one night. Why is that a good idea? The crossover between The Event and Chase is not low enough, but also not high enough to warrant it being a good idea. It’s just poor scheduling. But it doesn’t stop there.

The whole network this season was riddled with poor programming decisions. The failure that was the J.J. Abrams show Undercovers as a lead in on Wednesday nights followed by two hours of Law & Order: SVU & LA? The new (and really bad) law show Outlaw at 10 p.m. on Fridays after a reality show and news show? Quality aside, it truly felt like there was no diversity in the programming and more importantly, the schedule.

And then there was the mid-season overhaul back in January which saw the complete re-tooling of Law & Order: LA (which ended up making the show worse) and moving it to Mondays at 10pm (as well as a host of time slot changes including Chase being moved to Wednesdays against American Idol and Criminal Minds). Let’s just take those two examples for a second.

Just like before where Chase was failing, having a police procedural following The Event (and more importantly against proven freshman juggernaut procedural Hawaii Five-0 on CBS) is a monstrously bad idea. It’s even worse to repeat that mistake on Wednesdays by putting an under-performing freshman procedural against veteran Criminal Minds and counter-programmed hit American Idol – where’s the audience supposed to be? Anyone not watching American Idol is watching Criminal Minds. There’s no one to watch Chase in the first place.

The major point is that whoever was controlling the programming schedule was not qualified for the job. As it turns out, programming is more than randomly placing shows in slots. It’s a strategic game of chess, and your opponents are every other network on the spectrum. The idea is see an opponent’s move and then counter it, thus the term “counter-programming.” Giving the audience more options.

Which brings us to this week and the upcoming fall schedule. What seems to have happened over at 30 Rockefeller Plaza is that the execs finally picked up a dictionary and looked up the term. Just examine the new Monday example compared to what we looked at before.

NBC Mondays now consist of two hours worth of a reality shows, followed by a daring period piece drama in The Playboy Club. Now I know you’re thinking, “didn’t you just bash NBC for putting two shows against each other that didn’t have the same audience?” I did, but the difference is that now we’re dealing with two shows not with a slight crossover, but a complete polar opposite demographic. Anyone who bleeds over to Chase or Law & Order: LA from The Event is going to butcher the show’s word of mouth. However, no one watching The Sing-Off is going to stick around for The Playboy Club.

On top of that, The Playboy Club is perfect counter-programming to something like Hawaii Five-0. Now the audience suddenly has an option if they hate procedurals, which there are plenty of. NBC is saying with a move like this, “you don’t like episodic television? Well how about something a bit more ground breaking and long form?”

But not only are they providing more options, they are looking into new ideas. Last season’s schedule was filled with not so much unoriginal, but uninspired shows. Another Law & Order, another Abrams, another Bruckheimer, there was nothing that stood up and said “hey look at me!” But that all changes come September.

I’m not saying I’m looking forward to all of it, but I will say that the new schedule feels unique and full of life. Shows like the reality/false-reality drama Awake, the fairy-tale driven procedural Grimm, the Mad Men-esque drama The Playboy Club, the music series Smash which feels like a serious take on what Glee was trying to do – all of those dramas feel like an attempt at the risky rather than a play for the proven.

And the same goes for the new comedy slates. Whitney, Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, Free Agents, Bent, while the material in these shows is nothing new, the people are. In comedy it’s not always about the original writing, but about allowing new talent to thrive. NBC is gambling by giving some fresh faces their shot, but that’s what will set them apart come September.

“Broadcast 101,” as stated. There is no better way to describe it. NBC is finally playing the game again instead of watching it from the side lines. And even if most of these changes don’t pan out (which is how TV works), it’s a step in a new direction. At this point for the fourth-place network, any new direction is the right one.

Want to read more Channel Guide? Of course you do.

To listen to the latest episode of Merrill’s TV Podcast, The Idiot Boxers with Kevin Carr, head over toFat Guys at the Movies.

From a young age, TV guru Merrill Barr has been obsessed with the small screen. And one day he decided to put that obsession to good use.

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