NBC's Exciting Deja Vu
Most of the credit for this accomplishment goes to “The Voice,” which in its fifth cycle remains as exciting as ever, at least during the early blind audition episodes. It has dominated the young adult audience during both of its two-hour time periods and been a dandy lead-in for formidable freshman “The Blacklist” on Monday and sturdy sophomore “Chicago Fire” on Tuesdays.
Also significant is the apparent halo effect it has had on NBC's Wednesday night schedule, which benefits from all of that heavy duty promotion on Monday and Tuesday, not to mention having the revitalized “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” as its centerpiece.
Significantly, NBC during the early weeks of the 2012-13 season was the demo leader with all of its prime-time programming factored into its ratings, including “Sunday Night Football” and other sports events. But with sports removed last year at this time it was actually in fourth place among viewers 18-49. By contrast, during the first two weeks of the 2013-14 season it has been No. 1 in that demo -- even without football included in its ratings.
Of course, NBC's late 2012 success fell completely and historically to pieces once January 2013 rolled around, tumbling in the 18-49 demographic to a desultory fifth place behind its Big Four competitors and Univision. The network remained in deep trouble throughout February and into late March, when “The Voice” mercifully returned to its schedule.
NBC won't face this exact same problem this season because its coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games begins in early February, and that will lead directly into the return of “The Voice” -- so all will be well, assuming the Games deliver the kind of audience they generally do. But this does not address the gap NBC will face throughout the month of January and into the first few days of February before Olympics coverage begins.
Will NBC load up on original episodes of its current series in January after a holiday hiatus in December, only to pull them off its schedule again in February? Will it fill the month with limited series, short-flight reality shows and specials? It has many new properties in production for midseason or later, including the comedies “About a Boy,” “Growing Up Fisher” and “Undateable” and the dramas “The Night Shift,” “Chicago PD,” “Crossbones,” “Believe” and “Crisis.” Would scheduling any of them in January as a short-term event series be a shrewd move or a rude sacrifice?
A few weeks from mid-December to early February probably don't matter in the long run given the level of success NBC is enjoying this fall and the power it will likely have for the rest of the season once the Olympics begin. Still, that seems like a lot of scheduling time for a broadcaster to let go south.
And then there's the inevitable bad press when a network's performance shifts into reverse. This was certainly true earlier this year, when reporters had a field day calling attention to the fact that even Univision had moved ahead of NBC. Compounding the awkwardness for NBC in February was the return on AMC of “The Walking Dead,” which famously scored higher ratings in the 18-49 demographic than any series on NBC (and, in fairness, the other broadcasters as well). On top of that, the low-budget, live talk show “Talking Dead” that follows “Walking Dead” some weeks did better in the demo than much of what NBC was offering.
NBC last January also put on three-month hiatus “Revolution,” a show that had done quite well for the network during fall 2012, partly for reasons having to do with the demands of its production schedule, but also to re-team it with “The Voice” when the latter returned in late March and keep it going into June as one of the network's summer season boosters. I’m not sure that plan worked as desired: Surely NBC would have preferred to keep its 18-49 dominance rolling from January through March than from late May through June, when audience levels drop off regardless of what's being offered on network schedules. That strategy signaled that NBC was serious about becoming a robust year-round programmer -- an admirable goal -- but it didn't do much for the network's status at the very center of the season.
It seems television in recent years has been all about midseason, which begs the question, what's all the fuss about fall? Audiences tend to swell come January because there isn't much else to do during the post-holiday depths of the winter months except watch television. Think of the power Fox has had during the last 11 midseason periods with its annual launch of “American Idol.” Midseason proved to be the prime time for Fox's thrillers “24” and “The Following,” as well as ABC's “Lost” in its last seasons. Let's not forget that ABC's astonishingly long-lived and still very potent “Grey's Anatomy” launched at midseason, too.