Things have been dire at NBC for so long that network entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt could be forgiven for opening his press tour session by celebrating the network's third-place finish for the season in the adults 18-49 demographic. Even if it was boosted by the Super Bowl, it was still NBC's first finish above fourth place since the 2003-04 TV season.
The one good thing NBC has had going for it during this dark, dark period has been a collection of shows — particularly the comedies on Thursday — that have been praised early and often by the TV critics Greenblatt was addressing. Unfortunately, our love doesn't translate into ratings, and part of Greenblatt's plan to bring the network back from oblivion involves moving away from the strategy that gave us "30 Rock," "Parks and Recreation" and "Community."
"Those Thursday comedies, which the critics love, and we love," Greenblatt explained, "tend to be a bit more narrow than we'd ultimately like going forward."
He continued heaping praise on the returning comedies even as he tried to distance himself from the philosophy that created them.
"Given what's happened at the network in the last four or five years, with the general decline across the whole week and the loss of circulation, we just can't get the biggest audience for those shows," he acknowledged, "but they do tend to be a little bit more narrow and sophisticated than you might want for a broad audience. I hope these new shows we've got for the fall and the spring are also clever and also smart, but can also broaden the size of the audience.
"I don't want to say anything negative about what Tina Fey does, or 'Parks and Rec' or 'The Office,'" he added. "Those are great shows. But it's a challenge in comedy to broaden."
The desire to get a bigger audience is understandable. The current NBC ratings just can't be sustainable in the long term. But how the network plans to broaden is the question.
The new comedies include familiar stars ("Go On" with Matthew Perry), high concepts ("The New Normal," about a gay couple hiring a single mom to be a surrogate for their baby) and concepts that are easy to put into a promo ("Animal Practice" includes lots of cute critters, including the monkey from "Community," while "Guys with Kids" has babies). But the "Go On" pilot — with Perry as a sportscaster ordered to attend a grief counseling support group after his wife dies — is structurally identical to the "Community" pilot (even if it won't be as weird going forward), and if some of the other shows might translate more easily into an ad, it's hard to imagine several of them bringing viewers back after an initial sampling. "Guys With Kids" is a CBS-style sitcom that CBS would likely not want to air, for instance.
When I asked Greenblatt and entertainment president Jennifer Salke about the "Go On"/"Community" similarities, Salke insisted the two are actually quite different, even though both are about sarcastic loners forced to open up and better themselves when they land in a group of diverse eccentrics.
"We are looking for soulful comedy that can make you laugh, make you cry," she argued. "We think the world of a group of people with problems, getting together to support each other, is a more open idea on the face of it, and a little less specific than 'Community.' But it's also a show that has tons of heart, and just deals with human obstacles in your life that you need to get over, and a coming together of people, and the unlikely relationships of a group of people coming together, just trying to live their lives."
Having been at the table read for several scripts past the pilot, she said, "Every episode, instead of narrowing in on (Perry) and sports and something overly specific, it's really about these larger themes that are incredibly relatable, and makes sure you're entertained, and you laugh, and you might get a little goosebump or shed a little tear."
Greenblatt had already attempted to broaden the network's comedy brand last year with the likes of "Whitney" (which was renewed but has been exiled to Fridays along with "Community") and "Are You There, Chelsea?" and acknowledged that it's not easy to shift gears abruptly.
"You go in stages, and you go step by step," he said. "Shows like 'Whitney' were steps in the right direction. I've been doing this so long, and it takes more than a season, more than a couple of seasons of a show to really creatively find itself."
He also admitted that in the state NBC is in, they don't often have the luxury to let these shows find themselves.
"We are in this awkward stage of trying to take what's working on the network and expanding out and building on it," said Salke. "Some of our comedies might seem more commercial to you. Others fall in line with kinds that could be on Thursday night, but if you see them, they open up to a larger audience. It's an evolving comedy brand."
"30 Rock" is already entering its final season. Everyone assumes "Community" will be in its final season as well, though Greenblatt refused to acknowledge that, saying, "I would love nothing more than for 'Community' to have a following on Friday and to continue it." "The Office" might end if the Dwight spin-off works well enough. The "evolving comedy brand" could be a radical shift — though it would help enormously if the new shows were better at what they were trying to be, rather than just vague ideas of what could be more commercially successful.
Or the network could continue along like it has for the last several years, where its every attempt to introduce broader new shows fails, and then the quirky, narrow, critically-beloved ones keep surviving simply because they're known quantities doing better than the new ones intended to replace them.
In other NBC executive session news:
* Greenblatt is betting a lot on NBC's Summer Olympics coverage to help launch the new series, including commercial-free airings of the "Go On" and "Animal Practice" pilots during the Games. A reporter pointed out that his predecessors have had very little success in translating the borrowed audience that tunes into the network for the Olympics into good ratings for the shows launched out of it. Greenblatt said he didn't know what had or hadn't been done under previous regimes, but, "Hopefully we'll do a better job than has been done in the past."
* On the firing of "Community" creator Dan Harmon (which was done by the Sony studio, and not NBC), Greenblatt diplomatically said, "Every so often, it's time to make a change with a showrunner. You evaluate the creative, and how a show is run and how the writing staff works, and you decide to freshen the show, and we decided that was time for 'Community.' No disrespect for anyone." He also insisted that "the fans of 'Community' are going to get the same show they have loved from the beginning."
* "Parenthood" — which got a 15-episode order for this season — only came up in passing, but Greenblatt described it as "a drama we'd still like more people to watch, but that we're inordinately proud of."
* At the end of the session, a reporter brought up the changes to "Smash," which fired its creator, Theresa Rebeck, and hired "Gossip Girl" producer Josh Safran as the new showrunner, and also dumped several actors. When the reporter noted that many people would also like to see Julia's irritating son Leo disappear, Greenblatt asked, "Do we hate the son?" The crowd in unison shouted, "YES," and Greenblatt quipped, "Then you'll never see him again." He said Safran's top priority was to focus on "the arcing of the storylines, and the consistency of going in one direction with a character, and continuing in an interesting direction with that arc."
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org