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NBC’s Recent Ratings Troubles and Failures

Do No Harm recently became the lowest rated premiere for a scripted show in network history and after the second episode delivered significantly diminished ratings, NBC swiftly cancelled the doomed program. The series, which was a modern interpretation of the classic Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde story, failed to attract viewers for various reasons.

For instance, NBC didn’t seem to really get behind the series and promotional material was scarcely seen, and the lead Steven Pasquale wasn’t able to garner the name recognition the network probably wanted. Pasquale is perhaps best known for his supporting role in FX’s Rescue Me, a cable show whose audience was not large enough to serve NBC’s needs. Above all, the show was just not good. An over the top premise and performances accompanied by laughable writing and dialogue does not make a good series. The vast majority of the incredibly limited audience that tuned in for the premiere was wise to not come back for the second episode and NBC had no choice but to pull the plug.

Do No Harm’s failure comes at an unfortunate time, as NBC has hit an embarrassingly new low, after triumphing over the networks in November sweeps it has quickly fallen to the bottom of the heap. For the first time in sweeps history NBC is projected to finish 5th in the 18-49 demographic, behind Univision. The network’s short wave of success in the fall was facilitated by the presence of Sunday Night Football, The Voice, and the freshman hit Revolution in the prime time line-up. NBC saw a 17% increase on the 18-49 demographic from the previous year and was the only network to see such a raise. However, things definitely took a downward turn when the most popular programs on the NBC schedule were eliminated from the line-up. Once football season ended and CBS got the Super Bowl ratings glory, and NBC’s decision to withhold new episodes of both The Voice and Revolution until the spring, viewership significantly declined. NBC was left devoid of its most watched programs and with the return of popular programs from other networks, like FOX’s American Idol it was difficult for the network to win audiences back.

So, once again NBC is destined to be the best “loser network” as Liz Lemon would say. The situation might begin to look up for the network once March 25th comes around. Both The Voice and Revolution are set to come back and if they manage to sustain the success they had on this fall, then NBC might be able to crawl out of its last place hole. While The Voice has proven to be increasingly popular with audiences, the latest changes to the coaching panel might affect viewership. It is difficult to predict whether the change will be for the better or worst, or even if a significant change will be felt. Will audiences be intrigued by Shakira and Usher as the new coaches? Could their individual popularity attract new viewers into the show, or will audiences miss the established dynamic of the original cast? Usher and Shakira have large enough fan bases to fill the void of Cee Lo and Christina Aguilera loyalists, given that they tune in and like the program enough to watch the entire season.

As for Revolution, much of its success can be attributed to having The Voice as a lead-in and even with that ratings were slipping towards the end of the ten-episode run. A major reason for the show’s four-month hiatus was to air it along with The Voice, in order to benefit from the built-in audience of the competition program. The long break also gives the series creators a period of evaluation and assessment where they could tweak details and aspects of the show that needed some refinement. The program could certainly use some improvements regarding its narrative and writing as well as the acting. Although the cast is composed of some great actors like Billy Burke, Giancarlo Esposito, and Elizabeth Mitchell; some of the younger actors, like Tracy Spiridakos who is essentially the lead of the series, lack the substance and charisma to pull off the material they are given.

Even if these issues are dealt with appropriately, will there be an audience watching on Mach 25th? The long hiatus could encourage disinterest in audiences and viewers might just drop the show, others could just assume that the show was cancelled and not even know of its return. NBC, though, has been running advertisements announcing its return along with The Voice and seems to be very supportive of the program. I expect to see more and more print ads, commercials, and more as March 25 approaches, but don’t know if it will be enough to draw in audiences. If the show doesn’t adequately deal with some of the technical issues of the first half it could continue to lose viewers and lead the show to cancellation.

We’ll see how NBC’s strategy works when the freshman drama returns; hopefully it won’t go the route of some of the network’s other returning shows like the disastrous return of Smash. The sophomore show suffered a terrible comeback its second season premiere underwhelming many projections and trailing 71% from the first season debut and down 39% from the season finale in the 18-49 demographic. There was much ado about Smash last year from the less than favorable critical reception to the firing of showrunner and creator, Theresa Rebeck. While Smash never eared the numbers to qualify it a straight up hit, the network stood behind it and stubbornly insisted that the show would get to it status.

Steven Spielberg’s position as producer certainly gave the program some prestige but also influenced the network’s attitude towards the show. NBC would probably like to keep ties to Spielberg as tight and positive as possible, and cancelling one of his productions could hinder that. Smash went through a considerable re-tooling in between seasons in which creator Theresa Rebeck was replaced by Gossip Girl showrunner, Josh Safran. Under Safran, the cast was altered and supposed narrative and overall qualitative modifications were implemented for the second season. Whatever changes were made to the show in general were not enough to attract audiences, not even Jennifer Hudson’s much publicized addition to the show drew in new viewers. If the ratings continue to take this downward trend Smash will positively be cancelled.

Community is another returning show that has gone through some changes since it last aired. Though the program was originally set to premiere in the fall, its return was pushed back to February and the anticipation built by the delay actually helped the ratings for the comedy and it came back with respectable numbers. However its second episode back, viewership fell 42% from the premiere, when you are up against the powerhouse of American Idol it is difficult to hang on to a considerable audience. Especially, as some critics seem to suggest, when the program isn’t delivering the quality material the audience is used to. The behind the scenes drama that has haunted Community, which resulted in showrunner Dan Harmon’s firing and the resignation of key writers and producers, has definitely made an impression on the overall execution of the series and audience reception.

Still, Community has been on the air now for four years where it has developed a very loyal cult following, which is something that some of the newer sitcoms don’t posses. Even a show like Up All Night, which is going through its own behind the scenes drama and the network is unwilling to let go, doesn’t have the fan base Community has. Up All Night has not managed to capture any kind of stable audience and NBC has, again, stubbornly kept it in the schedule because of the talent involved in the show. The show was not working and was pulled from the schedule for a massive re-tooling in order to turn the show to a more traditional multi-cam sitcom.

Series creator Emily Spivey quit unhappy about the direction the show was going, after that Christina Applegate resigned citing creative differences with the newly appointed direction the series was undertaking. It has been reported that Will Arnett has been cast in a pilot for CBS and rumors are going around that Maya Rudolph is being courted by various networks with potential job offers. Essentially, Up All Night has devolved into a big mess that NBC will just not get rid off. With all the changes and alterations and cast departures it would just be easier to develop a new program altogether, the network is holding on to an idea of what Up All Night could be that never materializes. I expect the show will finally be put out of its misery, especially after the show’s starts have shown such a disinterest in the future of the series.

Freshman sitcoms Go On, and The New Normal have considerably declined with the absence of The Voice as a lead-in. These shows could have been considered successful in the fall but audience interest diminished after some time and their futures are questionable. With the departure of 30 Rock, which was never a bona-fide hit but saw ratings increases towards the end of its run, and The Office, which continues to do respectable numbers even though they have diminished, there will be important space in the schedule to fill. Like Community, Parks and Recreation has earned a loyal following through its time on the air and thanks to some award nominations has an air of prestige to it that will help it get picked up for the upcoming season. Much like 30 Rock, as it kept winning award after award, it became a prestige program left in the schedule for the aspect of respected quality rather than outstanding viewership.

While some of the critically praised, but commercially underwhelming programs (Parks and Recreation, Community, Parenthood) might get renewals because of the potential failure of many new shows (Go On, Do No Harm, Deception, The New Normal), NBC will be searching for ways to get the ratings up. Executives in the network has expressed future plans to develop shows that are more appealing to the general public, more broad comedy sitcoms instead of nuanced and niche comedies like 30 Rock and Community. This idea of sacrificing quality over mass appeal shows how the network underestimates its audience.

Dumbing down the material you produce won’t draw in more viewers, Animal Practice was a broad comedy sitcom that failed horribly for NBC even with the Olympics serving as a launching pad; 1600 Penn is another attempt at a family friendly broad comedy that is not doing well with audiences. Now, I’m not saying that broad comedies don’t have any kind of chance of working entirely, but the suggestion that this new slant in programming will be successful in bringing in audiences is absurd. There seems to be an issue of prioritization, while beloved but underappreciated shows like Community get put aside by the network, new shows are given all the attention, advertising and effort into trying to get people to watch. If NBC spent as much money and time advertising Community or Parks and Recreation that it does for 1600 Penn or The Voice or even Revolution, there might be more people watching.

There is no infallible formula for NBC to follow to guarantee commercial success, if there were, they would maintain their number one status. The return of both The Voice and Revolution is potentially going to increase viewership and new series have the potential to positively influence the network. The upcoming series and Do No Harm replacement Hannibal follows a 13-episode cable model and has a promising cast. The shorter season definitely makes it less costly to produce the program and might appeal to viewers who have grown to like the cable model for its more narratively dense episodes and seasons overall. Also coming in with a short season is the future series Crossbones, of which NBC has already ordered the whole ten-episode season and courted House’s Hugh Laurie to star in.  The pirate drama is a definite risk for the network, but could potentially become an appealing television event. NBC is also developing the British-American co-production, Dracula, which starts production soon. This is another series that has a straight to series commitment and could be a gamble for the network. These programs, while risky because of the commitment to produce all the episodes, are based on founded on very popular and familiar themes and stories so they could appeal to a wide variety of audiences.

Although currently NBC is at the lowest position it could be, things could very soon begin to turn around for the network The Voice, Revolution and the finale of The Office could provide the viewership necessary to propel NBC to a higher place in the network race and in position to win May sweeps. Who knows, maybe Hannibal will become a midseason sensation and do away with the dreaded Thursday 10PM time slot curse that brought down Do No Harm, Awake, Prime Suspect, and The Firm.


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