the pulse

NBC between '30 Rock' and a hard-sell place

One of primetime network television's many dirty little secrets is that, considering how hip and trendy single-camera comedies are supposed to be, almost nobody watches them. The two highest-rated comedies on TV? Those would be the ultra-square "Two and a Half Men" and "Rules of Engagement" on CBS, both of which incorporate the supposedly antiquated multiple cameras.

This does not bode well, of course, for a little NBC half-hour called "30 Rock" that on Sept. 16 became officially double-cursed. Not only did it barely draw flies during its rookie campaign, it also earned the Emmy Award for outstanding comedy series, a combination that proved fatal to a quirky single-camera Fox comedy called "Arrested Development."

But here's the really bad news: Even "Arrested Development" drew more eyeballs in its first season (6.2 million weely) than did "30 Rock" (a scant 5.4 million). You know you're in trouble when a show marked by its minuscule audience numbers scorches you in the Nielsens.

Alas, "30 Rock" already has outlasted the man who renewed it: deposed NBC Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly, who now holds down the programming fort at Fox. It was nonetheless a tremendous vote of confidence that NBC would bring back a series whose viewership average is nearly tripled by "Two and a Half Men" and whose creator-producer-writer-star Tina Fey was moved, during her Emmy acceptance speech, to thank the "dozens and dozens" of fans who support it.

That winning an Emmy is no guarantee of boosting ratings is almost a proverb considering what it didn't do for "Arrested." But "30 Rock," determined not to concede this fight, is pulling out a mighty weapon in hopes of reversing this particular trend when the show kicks off its second season next Thursday: a stunt casting extravaganza named Jerry Seinfeld, whose incredulous self is all over the premiere.

Just how big a difference this will make is questionable beyond a single-week bounce. Winning that same Emmy didn't do much for "The Office" after taking it home in 2006 (it dropped this past season). "Cheers" earned the 1984 Emmy after a disastrous first season in the ratings and subsequently climbed to the top of the charts, but the launch of "The Cosby Show" that year might be partly to blame.

What remains fairly baffling is how a series as consistently clever and funny as "30 Rock" can at the same time be so monumentally rejected. One easy answer, of course, is the critical disconnect with the audience mainstream when it comes to a situation comedy production technique considered infinitely more cinematic than the more traditional set-up/set-up/joke, four-camera variety.

Simply because the hipsters and the critics love and appreciate you doesn't mean the masses are destined to follow. In fact, it's generally likely to be the opposite — "Seinfeld," "Heroes" and "Ugly Betty" being rare exceptions. Comedy in particular inspires a certain polarization, wholly subjective piece of business that it is.

Viewers likely tune in to "30 Rock" and see an amusing show-within-a-show but not a whole lot they can relate to, given the inherent "inside baseball" sensibility that imbues it and its characters.

So while People Like You (i.e. The Industry) rightly see "30 Rock" as bracingly funny, you are not America. And in case you need another reminder, America isn't inclined to change its mind no matter how many Emmys you toss at it. After all, America ignores the Emmys, too, and two ignores don't make a hit.
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