NBC may be on the rise this season, but comedy — traditionally one of the network's strong suits — hasn't played much of a role in its recovery. Freshman half-hour Go On is showing promise, but NBC's Thursday night block, once the home to "Must See TV," now limps along.
That's why execs are taking a long, hard look at its comedy brand to decide in what direction to steer the laughs next year. NBC introduced the new slogan "We Peacock Comedy" this fall, but what kind of comedy does NBC actually "Peacock"?
"It's an interesting conversation," says NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke. "We just want a different brand. We don't want a narrow brand in the sense of some of those shows that we inherited here, which we're huge fans of, [but] have a very narrow audience."
Salke is referring to critically acclaimed comedies like Parks and Recreation and Community (which returns Feb. 7), as well as the retiring 30 Rock and The Office. On Oct. 25, the last time NBC's entire Thursday four-comedy block wasn't pre-empted, none of the sitcoms attracted more than 4 million viewers.
For a network that once dominated Thursdays with seminal sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends and Will & Grace, the decline is stunning. Even more recently, The Office was a ratings hit, and 30 Rock enjoyed several years as an Emmy darling. But with those two shows in their final seasons, and Community and Parks and Rec firmly on the bubble, NBC is at a crossroads.
The decisions NBC makes now, and pilots the network orders this winter, will determine their path. That's one reason they ultimately passed on The Farm, the proposed Office spin-off featuring Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) running his beet farm. (The scrapped series' pilot will still air as an episode of The Office later this season.)
"We love Rainn," Salke says. "But The Farm felt like a step towards an even narrower version of what those Thursday night comedies have been for us. A very specific audience would be checking that show out, and that feels too narrow for what we're trying to do. We're trying to do big, breakout ideas that are incredibly unique, that invite more than just a few people into the tent."
Execs also haven't been thrilled with the ratings or creative direction of Up All Night, which has already gone through a major creative shift in its second season. But the network still believes enough in series stars Will Arnett, Christina Applegate and Maya Rudolph (and, perhaps more importantly, executive producer Lorne Michaels) to give it one last-ditch overhaul. "You can never underestimate a cast like that," Salke says. "They don't come easy."
At the suggestion of Michaels, the single-camera comedy will return later this spring completely made over as a multi-camera sitcom, including being taped in front of a studio audience. The characters will remain the same, but almost everything else will be different. Salke says the revamp will save more than $500,000 in production costs per episode. "But that's not the motivating factor," she says. "We think it will capture the things that we love about [the cast] and address some of the things that are missing to make the show feel relevant."
Salke and her boss, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, sat down with each actor to explain the switch. "I think everyone is really excited to hold hands and jump off and do something really creatively invigorating," she says. "It's not going to be the same show dressed in a cheaper package, otherwise, why do it? We want to make this interesting to people, and we're all really invested in it."
Meanwhile, if you're a Parks and Rec or Community fan, don't fret yet: Salke and Greenblatt aren't planning on blowing their comedy brand up overnight. "It would be easy if we hated those shows, but we actually love those shows," Salke says. Not only would an immediate, wholesale change alienate fans, but it would also send a bad message to those shows' producers, directors and stars, many of whom have deals at NBC and its Universal Television production arm.
"The people attached to these shows are big parts of our business moving forward," Salke says. "We're also not arrogant to think we have the answers, so let's get rid of all that stuff and put in a bunch of other stuff. We have to do this piece by piece, and try to protect those shows as much as we can in the process."
It's not simply a question of single-camera verse multi-camera comedy, or hip young adult ensembles verse traditional family comedy. For the future of NBC comedy, Salke points to Matthew Perry and Go On, Ryan Murphy's The New Normal and the network's 22-episode mega-commitment for a Michael J. Fox sitcom next season.
NBC also has a script in development from Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, starring Anne Heche; the pilot Gates, based on a UK series about parents navigating the politics of their kids' school; a script starring The Office's Craig Robinson; a project based on the feature About A Boy; a comedy from Ali Wentworth based on her marriage to George Stephanopoulos; and a sitcom starring The Voice's Cee Lo Green, based on his life.
Despite the comedy conundrum, NBC is on the rise this season, boasting one of the year's few new hits, Revolution. The network is taking a risk in midseason, however, by resting the show for several months. After the midseason finale later on Nov. 26, Revolution won't be back until March 25. That will allow NBC to air originals, uninterrupted, and into the summer. Salke says it also means NBC can keep Revolution protected behind The Voice, which doesn't return for its fourth cycle until that same night.
"We're aware of how rare the miracles of these hits can happen," Salke says. "We wanted to put it in the most protected time slot possible, and we believe people will wait for it. We want to make sure we give it every chance possible to be the hit that we think it can be."
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