NBC fired Community showrunner Dan Harmon last week. The bizarre show, with quick hitting jokes/references and constant stream of spoof/concept episodes is hard for some people to enjoy, and the ratings showed that. Network TV is expensive to produce, and sometimes a hand is forced. In this case, however, removing Harmon makes no sense. This show is so unique that it’s hard to believe there is any way it will work with someone new, at least in the way that people know it today. More importantly, it likely will push some, or most, of it’s loyal fanbase out. This latest predicament has left me reflecting on whether NBC is in a tailspin they can’t get out of, and more interestingly, had me asking the question, are Microsoft and NBC pretty similar?
Microsoft released Windows 95 in the mid-90s and launched the era of mainstream personal computing. Not only did they flat out own the home market until recently, they did and still do dominate the business/enterprise market. This allowed them to become somewhat complacent. Windows Vista, the successor to the still popular Windows XP, was a disaster. It severely harmed the Windows brand, particular in the home market, and while Windows 7 was a significant improvement, it wasn’t enough to fully right the ship. Apple’s computers are trendy and “cool” and most people that can afford them prefer them to traditional “PCs” at this point. Microsoft never felt threatened enough by the iPhone (and later iPad) to try and get to the market quickly, and that underestimation has put them way behind the game.
NBC experiences a similar run of dominance in the 90s. Their “Must See TV” was the gold standard for 15 years. According to this Wikipedia article, it really started in the 80s, where things like The Cosby Show and Cheers were either #1, or top 10 shows for most or all of their runs. Other shows like A Different World, Family Ties and L.A. Law were also top 10 shows that benefited from their popular lead-ins. Things got even better when Seinfeld became the #1 show on TV in 1994-95. From that point it either it or ER was #1 for the next 5 seasons. With perennial top 10 show Friends opening the night, ER closing it, and Seinfeld in the middle, it was gold. So much so that pretty much any show NBC nestled in-between ranked in the top 10. Shows like Boston Common, which only lasted 32 episodes, The Single Guy, Veronica’s Closet and Jesse all managed to be top 10 shows, whether they were good or not1.
When Seinfeld ended in 1998, things started to decline. ER was still the #1 show the following season, and Fraiser moved to Thursdays to help pick up the slack, but there started being a problem just throwing anything in-between Friends and ER and getting it to stick. After Friends went off the air, ER’s ratings dropped. The new shows they put on Thursdays were mostly failures or middling successes, as other channels started to catch up.
At some point along the way, perhaps due to the success of Will and Grace, NBC started putting out more quirky programming. Shows like My Name is Earl, 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Scrubs and others took things to a new place. They never found that tentpole show on Thursday nights, particular in the 10 PM timeslot that ER occupied for all those years.
It’s not just Thursday nights though. NBC relies on reality shows Biggest Loser, Celebrity Apprentice and American Idol-ripoff The Voice. They haven’t had a successful drama in some time, and as much as some people like Smash it doesn’t look like the answer either.
That’s what makes the firing of Dan Harmon all that more confusing. Community’s ratings have not been very good, and only gotten worse over the course of the series. And it definitely takes a certain kind of mood to make Community entertaining, but the pop culture references are great, and there is undoubtedly a strong following for the show on the internet. Monica, Chandler, George and Kramer are not walking through that door2, and NBC is cutting the cord on a show that the vocal minority likes. CBS has the over 50 demographic locked up, and ABC seems to have the younger, meatier part of the age range locked up with gems like Modern Family, Suburgatory and surprise hits like Revenge and Once Upon a Time.
Cable networks keep coming up with quality programming as well. Channels like AMC, FX, TNT, TBS, Showtime, HBO, Starz and many others are doing both original and reality based shows that draw people in. The mass popularity of DVRs also make it much easier to watch shows anytime. When the “schedule” gets nullified by this practice, lead-ins and lead-outs become less important, which greatly hurts network television. The cable networks also replay their programs over and over again, which also makes the point of schedules pointless. AMC re-runs the current episode of Mad Men four or five times during the week. So those people that don’t have DVRs, or have a problem, can still stay current. The networks don’t tend to re-run these shows on a weekly basis. Meaning if you missed it, and it’s not on-demand, you can’t see it for free anywhere except your computer, and even then episode availability is sketchy.
CBS head Les Moonves said recently, “How am I going to produce ‘CSI’ for $4 million without ads. I can’t do that. I can’t give the audience that kind of quality.” Of course, many would argue that the best programs on television the last few years have been on cable networks like AMC and FX, where ratings are lower, ad rates are lower and shows therefore cost less. I think this is very likely going to create a change in how television is made, watched and broadcast. People are going to watch TV in different ways, and the networks will have to react. Netflix recently experimented with a series called Lilyhammer. They produced the entire season and then made them all available for streaming at the same time. The show wasn’t great, from what I heard, but it just shows that experimentation is happening with new ways to release TV shows.
The quick hook of pulling new shows after just a couple of episodes is a head scratcher. Lone Star wasn’t given a chance last season despite critics loving it. And even though they had made more episodes than they aired, it was gone after two hours. Friday Night Lights was a train wreck for NBC, and they bumbled it like crazy. Now, most people think it was one of the best shows of the last decade, and the number of people who consumed it on Netflix or DVDs after the fact is off the charts. The networks need to find better ways to adapt to this kind of viewing habits. They need to give shows a chance to breath before just pulling the plug. They need to find ways to take advantage of present day attention spans and technology. Until they do this, the downward spiral is unescapable.