NBC "Won't Cancel Shows Quickly" in Bid to Restore Comedy Brand

Jennifer Salke - S 2015
Courtesy of Mitchell Haaseth/NBC

NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke made a case for her network’s redefined comedy brand and teased its upcoming digital streaming plans to compete with ABC and CBS All Access.

Salke used her time on a New Voices in Primetime Comedy panel late Friday at SeriesFest in Denver to touch on diversity and competition from cable and streaming platforms as well as NBC’s reworked comedy brand. She appeared alongside NBC exec vp comedy development Tracey Pakosta, exec vp casting Grace Wu and Superstore co-star Lauren Ash during the content festival intended to celebrate the power of episodic storytelling. Comcast is a primary sponsor of the weekend event.

During the hourlong panel, Salke — who started at NBC in 2011 — offered a frank assessment of NBC’s difficult history in comedy and noted how the network fell from "must see" status during the Friends era to, more recently, “No. 5 or 6 behind Telemundo.” After famed single-camera comedies neared the ends of their runs, Salke said, the directive became to find more lucrative half-hours. That included what she called “a couple of years of over-correction" featuring series like one-and-done entry The Michael J. Fox Show.

“The comedy brand got a little murky for us,” the exec said. Now, she noted, NBC's comedy brand is intended to be “smart, specific, a little sophisticated and not too sweet.” (By way of negative example, Salke noted the "saccharine" quality of Growing Up Fisher, the failed 2014 blind-dad sitcom.)

NBC is doubling down on comedy with its 2016-17 offerings and hopes to bring back its iconic Thursday block in the fall with Mike Schur's The Good Place (the Kristen Bell and Ted Danson high-concept afterlife half-hour) and, at midseason, new series Powerless (DC Comics' first half-hour) and the Tina Fey-produced Great News.

As part of the hoped-for comedy turnaround, Salke pledged, "We won’t cancel shows quickly.”

“How do you redefine a classic brand?” Pakosta asked. The new recipe is “smart, sophisticated but not alienating,” she said, with the goal to be a little bit more “big tent,” like the Andrea Martin overbearing-mom premise of Great News, but to remain a family show at the core. “We continue to build a comedy brand and redefine what is comedy on NBC.”

The censors have backed off, partly in response to changes driven by cable, and “the Standards thing has really calmed down,” Salke said. Superstore’s Ash agreed: “It’s cool to see how far they’ve let us go. We get the scripts and think, 'This won’t make it.' But it does! It feels a little more relaxed.”

Pakosta said the network is “taking bigger swings,” citing the forthcoming John Lithgow comedy Trial & Error, which borrows in tone from both NBC's The Office and Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer. “We’re getting great talent to come to network TV, which people said you couldn’t do anymore,” she said.

Salke, meanwhile, gave a less-than-enthusiastic nod to Seeso, the Comcast/NBCUniversal digital comedy streaming channel. “It’s a starting place,” she said.

“The digital conversation is one-third of my day at this point,” she added, advising the audience to “stay tuned” for the network’s new digital plans.

In terms of diversity, Salke said she’s witnessed “a sea change — it used to be checking off boxes. Now it’s more organic inclusion.”

Wu was asked specifically about casting disabled actors to play disabled characters, something that was not done in the case of Superstore. She noted disabled actors were indeed auditioned for the role but “didn’t feel organic, we didn’t think they’d fit in the ensemble,” the exec said of the part that ultimately went to Colton Dunn. Wu said Dunn had the best chemistry with the cast. She stressed that the industry as a whole is working diligently to provide opportunities to disabled and diverse actors though the ultimate decision is to give the best actor the part. 

Regarding the notorious character breakdowns for female roles, which often include physical descriptions like “looks good in jeans” or “smokin’ blonde,” and which have gone viral online, Wu said, “Those descriptions are usually pulled verbatim from the script. It’s illuminating how the mostly male writers see these characters.”

The panelists’ repeated advice to aspiring writers and actors was “be authentic.”

“We hear 300 pitches per season,” Pakosta said. The key is to “make it personal, make it come to life.”