(Mike O’Malley, NBC’s new DH.)
How bad do things have to get for a network to take a damn chance?
Of course I’m talking about NBC here, the net’ whose former sinecure as one of the Big Three was recently and humiliatingly usurped as it fell to fifth place behind Spanish-language Univision in the 2013 February sweeps period. (Count me among those who, um, may have been unaware that such an outcome was even remotely possible.) Of course, the fortunes of any TV network are cyclical, and while it seems inconceivable that anyone will ever topple CBS’ current domination with its easily-digestible lineup of broad comedies, reality shows, and the CSI/NCIS juggernaut, its day will come. You know, as its elder-skewing viewership, shall we say, gradually…stops watching.
But since it’s currently NBC’s turn as TV punchline, I have a few questions.
NBC is losing or has lost some of its flagship series (The Office, 30 Rock), and its recently announced lineup of new shows looks singularly unadventurous, with remakes (Ironsides), movie adaptations (About A Boy), spinoffs (Chicago PD), yet another doctor show (who cares), and Mike O’Malley. At the same time, the Peacock has passed on a number of pilots, among them an autobiographical sitcom from SNL writer and standup John Mulaney. I haven’t had the opportunity to see Mulaney’s show, but by all accounts it was a hip, funny autobiographical showcase for a talented, up-and-coming comic. (I mean, it’s not like that Louie show is a commercial and critical success or anything, right?) And while the decision to not to pick up one show isn’t itself proof of anything, NBC’s current predicament and programming decisions indicate that the prevailing philosophy remains steadfastly conservative, even in the face of undeniable, and ongoing, futility.
Which leads me to repeat-What, exactly, would be lost if a floundering network took a flier on the unexpected for one TV season?
Now, I’m not talking about some irrational Tunnel Vision/The Groove Tube/Videodrome experiment in broadcasting anarchy here. Network television isn’t being disassembled and recast in the image of a million tweeting fanboys. Or TV critics, for that matter. It’s simply a matter of taking a chance and playing some Moneyball.
First, instead of swinging for the fences with high-priced approximations of what’s worked before, or, you know, what’s currently working really well for its competitors, NBC signs innovative but unproven creators to much cheaper deals. (Like, oh I don’t know…John Mulaney!? C’monnn…) More shows are always going to fail than succeed, and often with shocking abruptness, leaving behind nothing but wasted money and a very annoyed David Alan Grier. So why not minimize the financial risk by fielding a lineup of more inexpensive shows/creators? The initial investment will be less, those involved will be hungry (and talented), and there’s at least an equal chance of ratings success. (Or at least the same sort of ratings failure but at less cost.) I suppose it could get worse for NBC theoretically. What’s in sixth place anyway? ABC Family? ESPN Deportes?
In addition, the inevitable critical buzz (in the event that the gamble pays off creatively) and internet/fan buzz (even if the shows don’t work, there’s good press to be had for trying) will be an improvement over the press involved in getting beaten by a network many viewers remain happily ignorant of while they watch CBS.
Second is a plan that NBC is, accidentally, sort of enacting right now. With Hannibal and Bryan Fuller, the network greenlit a show by an idiosyncratic showrunner with a small but incredibly devoted fan base. See where I’m going here? And while Hannibal (even with the seemingly sure-fire Lecter factor) hasn’t pulled great ratings, critical praise and a small but incredibly devoted fan base have won the show a second season (THIS SEEMED CERTAIN WHEN WRITING THIS- STAY TUNED) with which, one hopes, to build a larger audience. In the meantime, fans of Fuller’s Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, and Dead Like Me are out there tweeting, creating fansites, building momentum and putting fresh eyes on the show. The primacy of Nielsen ratings is being increasingly challenged by the myriad ways of measuring viewer enthusiasm for a TV series, and luring in creators whose fans are going to follow him or her to the gates of cancellation hell and beyond is just smart baseball. Some suggestions of currently homeless television auteurs who’d deliver a such a built-in audience: Barbara Hall (Joan of Arcadia), Amy Sherman-Palladino (The Gilmore Girls, possibly Bunheads depending on the breaks), Rob Thomas (Party Down, Veronica Mars, once the movie and its inevitable crowdfunded sequels wrap up), Dana Fox (Ben and Kate), Mike White (Enlightened), or Ted Griffin (Terriers). Add your own neglected geniuses in the comments.
(Also, at this point, I would like to put out there that a third option “bring back the cancelled shows from these creators” was rejected outright, proving once and for all that this is not some raving, woefully impractical fanboy dream about reuniting the cast from Firefly, but a well-reasoned programming theory.)
Will NBC turn into the Yankees with this philosophy in place? Well, no, probably not. Big ratings generally do come from big, proven stars. But big television stars are made and not born, and if, say, a major network were to make itself a haven for inventive new (or established but neglected) talent, then that sounds like a good place for such stars to be discovered and nurtured. However, and with apologies to readers in Chicago, NBC is the broadcasting equivalent of the Cubs at this point, placing all its frustrated hopes on former stars (Sean Hayes? Him?) in the service of inflated contracts and hoping, in the manner of the deluded ever, that repeated application of the same formula will produce, somehow, a more positive result.
The secret of moneyball is deploying your assets according to unique criteria your opponents have undervalued. Sure, you have to hope that you catch a few breaks along the way, but you’re gonna win more than you lose, and pick up (or regain) some respect (and paying customers) in the process.
At least you’ll beat Univision.
Image courtesy of Collider.com