Press Tour: Why NBC's leadership vacuum has been a good thing
Today is NBC's day at press tour, and a very strange thing is happening: NBC isn't doing any kind of executive panel.
The executive session is a press tour staple. Somebody - usually the head of network entertainment, but sometimes someone a bit higher or lower on the food chain - comes out, recites a bunch of statistics about how awesome their network is doing, makes a few announcements about pick-ups and/or scheduling, and then fields questions about why Canceled Show A failed, the odds for Bubble Show B, their take on Obvious TV Trend C, etc. There are times when the executive is so new in the job (case in point: ABC's Paul Lee addressing us on his very first day) that the session becomes a piece of absurdist theater, in which we try to think up questions that won't elicit an "I'm sorry, I don't know because I just got here" answer, or in which the executive isn't high-ranking enough to answer the questions we care about. (Case in point: NBC trotting out two execs a few tours ago who had nothing whatsoever to do with "The Jay Leno Show," when that's all anyone wanted to ask about.) But there's always some kind of executive session.
NBC's not doing that, though, for an unusual but understandable reason: the people who are technically running the network are all about to be pushed out, and the people who are actually running the network aren't legally allowed to speak for it yet.
Everybody knows the FCC is going to approve Comcast's acquisition of the NBC Universal empire, but it hasn't happened yet. So even though former Showtime exec Bob Greenblatt and E! exec Ted Harbert will be placed in charge as soon as the merger's official, they're not supposed to have anything to do with the company yet. And people like current NBC entertainment president Angela Bromstad are essentially running out the string.
So we won't get to ask about the fates of "Chuck" or "Community" or even "Parks and Recreation." We won't get to ask what Bromstad and company were thinking when they greenlit David E. Kelley's horrible new "Harry's Law," or when the bushel of midseason comedies NBC has on its bench (including "The Paul Reiser Show" and "Friends with Benefits") will air, or whether they'd like a mulligan on the hasty attempt to preview "Perfect Couples" after "The Sing-Off." We won't be able to ask Greenblatt for his take on the shows he's inherited or his vision for NBC in the future. Nothing.
And I get why we can't, even though it's frustrating and odd. But while NBC is essentially a headless network for a few weeks or more, I want to say a couple of things about the network.
NBC makes a very, very easy punching bag. Nearly everything that can go wrong at a network has gone wrong over the last 5 or 6 years. Jeff Zucker alienated most of Hollywood on his incomprehensible ascent up the corporate ladder (you'll note Comcast wants nothing to do with him), he made bad choices of lieutenants (dumping Kevin Reilly in favor of walking disaster area Ben Silverman), made bad choices on programming (failing to develop anything capable of carrying the network after "Friends" went away), made bad choices on personnel (failing to recognize that Leno and Conan couldn't co-exist and that he should just leave Leno on "Tonight"). The network that was the class of television for a long time is now a low-rated joke.
But here's the thing: of all the broadcast networks, NBC is still the one I watch the most each week. They have what I'd consider both the best comedy to air on broadcast TV (and really, on all of TV) in "Parks and Recreation," and the best broadcast drama in "Friday Night Lights." (Yes, that's technically a DirecTV show that NBC reruns these days, but it originated on NBC.) They have a whole bunch of other shows I feel passionately about, from "Community" to "Chuck" to "30 Rock," others I like to varying degrees ("Parenthood," latter-day "The Office"), and when their new shows don't work, it's usually in some memorable way. ("Outlaw" gave me more laughs than several actual sitcoms that debuted this fall.)
And most of those shows get ratings that would get them canceled in a heartbeat on any other network. The thing that's made NBC an industry joke has also made it a place where a niche show like "Community" can hang around for at least two full seasons (and hopefully more), where there's now a better-than-even chance that "Chuck" might stick around for a FIFTH season, where they recognized the brilliance of "Friday Night Lights" enough to seek out that DirecTV deal that kept the show in existence for three extra years, where "30 Rock" will likely be around for as long as Tina Fey wants to keep doing it.
I want NBC to do better, in part because I feel nostalgia for the days in the '80s and '90s when NBC was both popular and filled with quality, in part because I want an infrastructure of success in place so that the next good show the network develops won't have to flail about on its own the way a "Community" has. But at the same time, I recognize that the culture of failure at NBC this last half-decade has allowed a lot of shows that are lacking in mass appeal to stay on the air and keep me entertained.
The network has been patient with shows like "Chuck" and "30 Rock" because it hasn't had any better options. My hope is that if Greenblatt turns this mess around, that he'll still be patient because he recognizes quality. My fear is that if NBC ever does become successful again, then the lifespan of shows like that will be much, much shorter.