The moment NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said the words, I flinched. Before I tell you what those words were, have I told you that I really like one of NBC’s fall dramas and I’m rooting for one of its fall comedies?
Just so you know that it’s not all negativity and snark when it comes to the failure analysis of the Peacock.
OK, so in Saturday morning’s executives session with Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, the talk was suddenly hovering around the topic of having to pull the plug on shows that weren’t doing well even though you thought they would have done better. For your purposes at home, think about having to put down your dog, or something similar. In this instance, the focus was on The New Normal and Go On, two shows that weren’t particularly funny to begin with and thus not a source of great consternation as to why they would be canceled. Well, not on my end anyway. But their failure had caused both executives to lament the need to cancel them and, as Greenblatt said, “You have to make those really difficult calls about what you sort of can renew at what rating. And we had to make a very difficult call.”
That emotion is understandable for executives who put a lot of time and energy into the development process and then see their babies falter in the cruel Nielsen world.
But then Salke said this: “And with deteriorating ratings the tolerance for a show that’s struggling is just shorter than it’s ever been. So it’s frustrating for all of us that you can’t take the time to nurture a show and grow the audience as much as you might want to.”
In the hypercompetitive world of television, the track record for doing the opposite of nurturing — that is, creating shows and quickly canceling them — has been hovering around the 80 percent range for years. It just hasn’t worked out as a programming philosophy. Meaning, constant turnover driven by panic is not the answer. But it was Salke’s answer. And there’s part of me that completely gets what she’s thinking. People have an overwhelming number of options out there. If they reject what you give them, you have to make the tough call and start over from scratch.
And yet, patience and nurturing is in the NBC DNA. It’s what helped lift the network up from the dregs into first place long ago (and more recently, it’s what helped rebuild CBS). There’s a history of patience at the Peacock. From Hill Street Blues to Seinfeld, from Friday Night Lights to 30 Rock. And making Salke’s statement particularly bizarre is the fact that NBC had a scheduled session later in the day for a series that instills a bunch of pride in the network, a series that will go into its fifth season in September, a series that Greenblatt rightly says deserves Emmy recognition: Parenthood.
The series is coming off arguably its best season — certainly one that prompted countless critics to rave about it and even go on Twitter to talk about how emotionally draining (tears everywhere!) it is to watch. Emmy snubs? Sure — in lots of categories.
And yet, Parenthood would not be on the air if NBC had not been patient and nurtured it. A season hasn’t gone by where Parenthood wasn’t on the bubble. You don’t panel a series going into its fifth season unless you’re incredibly proud of it for surviving and being great even if most people have not been paying attention.
So, what was that again about tolerance for struggling shows being shorter in these difficult times?
But here’s an important asterisk: A truly successful network — hello, CBS! — doesn’t have to nurture anything. It doesn’t have to be empathetic. It has the luxury to be patient if it wants to but also the license to weed out the weak. And that’s its prerogative. A failing network must use patience as a strategy. Next time you’re at dinner with Uncle Les Moonves from CBS, make him tell you the story about Everybody Loves Raymond again — he loves that one. And do you know why? Because being patient with Raymond changed CBS’ fate.
Now, let’s be clear here: NBC is a failing network. It fought ABC in a bloody death match last season for last place and luckily found third place by the slimmest of margins. The only good tool in its tool box right now is patience.
Yes, you could make the argument that NBC has been patient with its Thursday night comedies for years and what did it get them? (Well, other than some Emmys and about the only loyal fans in the NBC stratosphere, probably not much else that will look good on paper.)
But being patient doesn’t mean being stupid. If a network invests in a show that doesn’t grow in two or three seasons, sure, it’s probably time. But if everything else isn’t growing on the network, it’s probably time for a new network president as well. The art is picking the right show to be patient with while you’re also finding shows that become immediate hits. If you just plow under your fields every year, you’re not unlucky, you’re a bad farmer.
Which brings us to the two shows I mentioned liking at the top. The first is The Blacklist, a new drama starring James Spader. It has tons of potential and the pilot was a lot of fun. The other show is The Michael J. Fox Show, a fall comedy that also has a lot of potential, plus a beloved star. In many ways, you can’t take your eyes off of either Spader or Fox, and that’s generally a good sign. If those shows can be hits right out of the box, then it makes being patient with something else that much easier for Salke and Greenblatt.
So Salke is wrong to say you can’t be patient. In fact, you must be patient. That you can’t take the time to nurture a show is ludicrous. When you’re stuck in the industry’s current ultra-competitive landscape, saying you can’t be patient because viewers can’t find you is a mistake. They probably haven’t found you because they haven’t had the time to find you yet. Shows need a chance. More than ever they need to be nurtured — and that takes patience.
I’m willing to give Salke the benefit of the doubt. It’s no fun to sit up there at TCA and answer questions about why the wheels have come off of your car. Sometimes you just say stuff without thinking. You say stuff maybe you don’t even believe. The words just come out. Hell, I’m willing to even gloss over the fact that Salke said it was critical to support Hannibal and critical to support its creator, Bryan Fuller, and thus that’s why Hannibal is coming back. As if NBC was exercising, you know, patience — after the network seemed to put Hannibal on without much support, seemed to forget the show was even on for a while and seemed very uncommitted to saving it until the passion of the zeitgeist (and the fact Fuller had other options) prompted a renewal. Look, it doesn’t matter how you express patience. Being patient by accident works too.
So here’s to The Blacklist and The Michael J. Fox Show being instant successes, so that NBC can be tolerant of the slow build.