Damage Assessment: NBC's First-to-Fourth Free Fall
A historic flop in "Do No Harm," chaos on "Up All Night" and a schedule full of holes have insiders (and Brian Williams) grumbling about how to right the ship.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A very bad month for NBC has left TV industry watchers wondering how the network that went from fourth place to first and back to fourth in a matter of weeks can rebuild for the long term.
NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt admitted Jan. 6 that despite a rare top finish in the 18-to-49 demo for the first half of the season, the network was predicting a rough patch without Sunday Night Football and with The Voice on hiatus until March. "No one is more aware of what January through March will bring than us," he told reporters.
But not even NBC executives were prepared for exactly how dismal the ratings would be for its Thursday night midseason entry Do No Harm. The Jan. 31 bow of the Steven Pasquale drama's 0.9 rating (and 3.1 million viewers) made it the lowest-rated in-season scripted premiere in the history of the Big Four networks and earned it the ax after two episodes.
Then came news that Christina Applegate would exit Up All Night, the comedy she's headlined for two uneven seasons, as the Lorne Michaels-produced show attempts to switch from single-camera to multicamera. Sources say the series is not dead yet -- co-stars Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph declined comment on their status -- but admit prospects for survival are bleak. At the same time, Smash, a show championed by Greenblatt, returned Feb. 5 with a poor 1.2 rating, a decline of nearly 70 percent compared with last season's Voice-fueled debut. Struggling midseason comedy 1600 Penn is being pre-empted Feb. 14 by The Office after managing a 1.3 rating with 3.3 million viewers for its Jan. 24 episode. New drama Deception earned a low 1.3 rating with 3.3 million viewers for its Feb. 11 episode (and that was an increase of nearly 20 percent week-over-week in the demo). New comedies Go On and The New Normal -- which benefited from the fall boost at NBC -- have seen their ratings plummet after the holidays, and awards magnet 30 Rock's January finale generated a 1.9 rating (4.9 million viewers). Adding salt to the wound, the network's top-rated comedy, Office, ends in May.
All of this puts enormous pressure on The Voice to deliver for its second cycle of the season -- and without Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green (replaced by Shakira and Usher). And even that one hit doesn't solve NBC's long-term problems. "It's going to take more than The Voice to turn their fortunes around," notes Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media, who adds that while ratings erosion was inevitable, "no one anticipated that the falloff would be this great."
But if Greenblatt -- and NBC -- is under the microscope from owner Comcast, insiders say he still has the support of boss Steve Burke, who is giving him plenty of latitude. (Comcast also announced Feb. 12 that it will buy out GE's 49 percent ownership of NBCUniversal for $16.7 billion.) One source close to Greenblatt describes NBC's recent woes as "hellacious" but adds that he is focused on rebuilding, however slowly. He has ordered 27 pilots this season, a massive haul that includes an already-ordered-to-series Michael J. Fox comedy. Sources say the thinking is that even further investment is needed to right the ship.
Some have noted that NBC's much-derided Jay Leno experiment at 10 p.m. produced better ratings than some of the current time-slot occupants. But no one expects the network to return to a variety format -- even at one-fifth the cost of a flop like Do No Harm. "When you have a bad show and you put it into a tough time period, fairly bad things happen," notes a top producer. "Does that mean strategically they return to the most disastrous decision in the history of NBC? No, it doesn't mean that."
Indeed, the modest ratings for Rock Center With Brian Williams -- the previous occupant of the 10 p.m. Thursday slot -- look healthy compared with Do No Harm's nosedive. Rock Center pulled in a 1.3 rating (with 5.5 million viewers) for its inaugural Friday installment on Feb. 8, which was 85 percent better than Do No Harm did the night before. But NBC brass might have upset Williams with the move. He closed Rock Center on Feb. 8 with a segment characterizing Friday as its "latest resting place." Sources at NBC News say Williams was angered that Burbank execs did not give the show the promised promotion, while plans to expand it to multiple weekly airings have been abandoned.
Another executive suggests Greenblatt is focused on doing too much too quickly and should rely on more inexpensive, unscripted fare to plug holes while he homes in on building specific nights. At the moment, NBC has little to use for schedule spackle save for Law & Order: SVU reruns -- which will fill 10 p.m. Thursdays for now -- and a few series in waiting, including the thriller Hannibal. The Celebrity Apprentice returns March 3, and Eva Longoria's Ready for Love follows March 31. Also on the roster is an Anne Heche comedy whose title might serve as a call-to-action for the network: Save Me.