Thursday, March 6, 2014

NBC's Thursday Night Problem

There was a time when Thursday night belonged to NBC. For a portion of the Eighties all four of the network's sitcoms that aired on the night (The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court) ranked in the top ten shows for the year according to ACNielsen. In the Nineties NBC continued to dominate the night with such hits as Friends and Seinfeld. Sadly, the 21st Century has not been kind to NBC on Thursday nights. For much of the Naughts and the entirely of the Teens the network has regularly found itself beaten on the night it once owned.

Sadly for NBC, their losing streak on Thursday nights has continued this season. Their comedy scheduled at 8:30PM Eastern/7:30PM Central this fall, Welcome to the Family, was more or less dead on arrival. It did so poorly in the ratings that the network cancelled it after three episodes. Their shows at 9:00PM Eastern/8:00 PM Central and 9:30PM Eastern/8:30PM Central didn't do much better. Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show both consistently did poorly in the ratings. Sean Saves the World was cancelled on 28 February 2014. Things aren't much better for The Michael J. Fox Show. In February NBC announced The Michael J. Fox Show would not return after the Winter Olympics and would not air again until April. What must make all of this even more depressing for NBC is that they faced weaker competition on CBS than they had in previous years. Both The Crazy Ones and Two and a Half Men have been drawing lower ratings than Person of Interest had in the same time slot.

Sadly for the Peacock Network, the failures of Welcome to the Family, Sean Saves the World, and The Michael J. Fox Show have been typical of their shows on Thursday night of late. Since 2009 only two shows on NBC's Thursday night line up have lasted more than two seasons: Community and Parks and Recreation. Indeed, the lifespan of some of NBC's Thursday night comedies can be numbered in mere weeks. During the 2010-2011 season Perfect Couples only lasted for eleven episodes (with two more made available on Hulu). Its replacement, The Paul Reiser Show, did even worse. It was cancelled after only two episodes. Other shows that NBC has aired on Thursday night have only done a little better. Outsourced lasted one season. Both Up All Night and Whitney lasted only a little over a season.

Of course, the question is "Why has NBC done so badly of late on a night they once dominated?" Part of the reason may be that since 2009 the network has consistently debuted weak shows on the night. Up All Night had a good cast (Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, and Maya Rudolph), but its scripts were consistently poorly written and extremely unfunny. Whitney had two strong leads (Whitney Cummings and Chris D'Elia), but its feeble supporting characters dragged the show down. The Paul Reiser Show amounted to little more than a very poorly done imitation of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Despite a good cast Perfect Couples simply wasn't funny. With shows that were not particularly funny and, in some cases, not even particularly original, it should be little wonder that NBC would do poorly in the ratings.

To make matters worse the past several years NBC has consistently treated its few strong shows on Thursday night as odd men out. In its third season NBC did not debut Parks and Recreation until mid-season. NBC did the same thing with Community in both its fourth and its current fifth seasons. Both Parks and Recreation and Community have consistently performed better than the new shows NBC has debuted in their wakes. They also have fiercely loyal followings who are guaranteed to watch them each week (indeed, there was an uproar when fans found out Community would begin its fourth season until mid-season). It is then curious that the network has at times scheduled them so strangely. One has to wonder if NBC would not do better on Thursday nights if they would only debut both shows at the start of the season in September.

Of course, Community and Parks and Recreation aren't the only strong shows that NBC has scheduled wrongly. Unlike many of the sitcoms that have aired on NBC on Thursday mights, The Michael J. Fox Show has a particularly strong cast (including Michael J. Fox and Wendell Pierce). It is also a very funny, well written show. Unfortunately, NBC decided to schedule it at 9:30PM Eastern/8:30PM Central following the much weaker Sean Saves the World. While Sean Saves the World was not necessarily a bad show (it was much better than either Up All Night or The Paul Reiser Show at any rate), it wasn't a particularly good show either. I have to suspect many viewers opted to watch The Crazy Ones on CBS instead and did not bother to switch the channel back to NBC to watch The Michael J. Fox Show. Had The Micahel J. Fox Show been scheduled at 9:00PM Eastern/8:00PM Central, it might have done much better in the ratings.

In the end the path NBC should take with its Thursday night comedies seems fairly clear to me. The network has already renewed Parks and Recreation. They should also renew Community and The Michael J. Fox Show. What is more they should also debut all three shows in September for the 2014-2015 season. As to the fourth, new sitcom they air on Thursday nights in the 2014-2015 season, they should make sure that it not only has a strong cast, but that it also has strong scripts. It takes more than actors to make a successful sitcom. It takes good writing as well. Now I can't say that NBC will once more dominate Thursday nights with that line up. In fact, I suspect they could still well lose the night to CBS and at least part of it to ABC. That having been said, I think NBC would do better than they have the past few years.

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