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The reason I’ve written in the past that NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt deserves to gloat about the network’s dramatic rise to No. 1 from No. 4 is very simple: In this day and age, running a broadcast network is extremely difficult, and exactly how you climb out of the muck — NFL games, riding a big singing show like The Voice, getting lucky here and there — doesn’t matter. You did it. And it was damned hard.
It also was written to be fair. Every network president eventually will stumble and be questioned or criticized. And these days Greenblatt must be looking at his assembled series and muttering the Tina Fey as Liz Lemon proclamation: “What the what?”
Because NBC has tumbled back down to earth — or under it, depending how you look at it. The ratings are gone. New shows have flopped; Deception and Do No Harm were not only lousy dramas but spurned by viewers. Worse for Greenblatt — because it’s his pet show — Tuesday’s second-season return of Smash hit the earth like a wayward meteor, down 71 percent in the demo from its series premiere and 39 percent from its season one finale.
That’s why the word “repudiate” is in the dictionary.
Hell, Do No Harm went below Rock Center numbers, which is really saying something. Even Go On, a modest hit that’s basically Community in a more broadly palatable form, is bleeding viewers. One of NBC’s biggest fall success stories was Revolution, but it doesn’t return until March 25 and will have been off the air for nearly four months — which, for a serialized show, is really testing viewer loyalty.
And now Community returns, the first episode from its new showrunners after Dan Harmon was relieved of his duties — running the show he created. For a brilliant little series with a very small but loyal fan base, the switch at the helm and NBC’s constant pushing back of the premiere has led to little flares of anxiety and exasperation on the Internet. The buildup of online chatter as Community returns Thursday night has been impressive for a cult show.
Look, I happen to love Community. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you hate the new direction. It doesn’t matter if you’re pleasantly surprised that you can’t really tell the difference. It doesn’t even matter if you’re just happy it’s back.
Because it’s dead. You must have known that. And if not, here’s your reminder: Community is dead.
NBC has much, much bigger worries than Community, a series it essentially gave up on long ago. (If you want to see a similar pattern of network behavior, look into the ABC/Cougar Town archives and see how that ended.) No doubt the first thing Greenblatt is looking at with a certain panic are those Smash numbers. It’s like the poster series for “hate watching” couldn’t even generate that crowd to watch. Was Tuesday’s premiere some weird aberration? If the numbers stay in nadir territory — or worse — Greenblatt will have his toughest decision as a broadcast network chief. On cable, where Greenblatt rose to prominence at Showtime, you can nurture the little ponies. At the network level, you’re running horses. And if they don’t win?
This is the decision that will haunt and/or define Greenblatt. If Smash truly implodes, will he dump it and continue searching for a hit? Or will he take up a precious hour on the schedule for a show that can’t be saved?
See, NBC needs to overhaul its lineup. No tinkering. No patience. Before the upfronts in May, it’s spring cleaning time in Burbank. Do No Harm and Deception will be gone, as will Community, the retiring-past-its-sell-by-date Office, the wretched Guys With Kids (one would hope). Already 30 Rock has had its swan song. Outside of The Voice and NFL games, what’s truly untouchable on the NBC schedule? If you went from fourth to first and back to fourth again, you’d do some soul searching. And one would assume that soul searching would lead to, “We need to blow it up.”
Personally, I love Parks and Recreation — it’s one of my favorite shows, and I hope it stays on forever. I also like 1600 Penn, Grimm and Parenthood. But those are not exactly hits, so there’s worry.
Chicago Fire is not a show I’d watch regularly, but it does what it was designed for, and NBC needs to stay in the procedural game. Despite the star power in the sitcom Up All Night, the viewers never came, and NBC’s decision to switch to a multicamera format with a live audience is a little bit like the crying doctor who keeps trying to resuscitate a patient who has flat-lined. Whitney and The New Normal? Betty White’s Off Their Rockers? These are not keepers, people. These aren’t shows that redirect a network skyward.
Dateline? The Celebrity Apprentice? The Biggest Loser? A little long in the tooth.
So, yes, enjoy Community tonight (or not). Pretend it’s a wake. There’s a reversal of course coming to NBC, and the only show to monitor for clues about how deep the cuts are going to be is Smash.
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