The Comedy Crunch At NBC And CBS
In one of the most interesting developments of the 2013-14 season to date NBC and CBS, the two networks that have been the clear leaders among adults 18-49 and in total viewers, respectively, each have suffered a significant failure along with their successes. And both of those failures concern their comedy programming. Specifically, CBS has sprung a leak on Monday nights, long the home to a two-hour block of hit or at least modestly successful sitcoms, while NBC has toppled off the cliff on Thursdays, where it reigned as the home of Must-See TV sitcoms for more than 20 years.
Not that the news is intensely dire for either network, given their overall accomplishments at the moment, and the fact that each of them can boast the launch of one or more successful new series (NBC’s “The Blacklist,” CBS’ “The Crazy Ones,” “Mom” and perhaps “The Millers”) during what is turning out to be an especially punishing fall season for broadcast’s freshman class. But bragging rights are everything in this business, and the loss of strength on what had been reliable foundation nights has to be a major concern.
Interestingly, NBC is hurting the CBS comedy block on Monday with the first of its two weekly installments of “The Voice,” while CBS is slamming NBC’s Thursday comedy block with the establishment this season on the night of a two-hour comedy block of its own. And that block leads off with “The Big Bang Theory,” arguably the most successful comedy on broadcast television, even if ABC’s “Modern Family” steals more of the media spotlight and wins more awards. If CBS had a genuine powerhouse at 10 p.m. – something stronger than “Elementary,” which is merely very good but not necessarily great – it would own the night from beginning to end.
CBS swiftly cancelled “We Are Men” after two disappointing telecasts, but the damage to its Monday schedule was already done. Together with the now-tiresome “How I Met Your Mother,” which has been kept around one season too long, “Men” blew a hole in the night, severely weakening the veteran comedy “2 Broke Girls” as a 9 p.m. tent pole and the terrific new comedy that follows it, “Mom.” “Mike and Molly” will return to the night in a couple of weeks, but I’m not sure that will be enough. I think the network needs a sitcom with the power of the seemingly tireless “Two and a Half Men” to shore up the night and support something new and noteworthy behind it. I don’t think that new show should be “Mom,” a series that belongs on CBS’ Thursday comedy lineup with “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Millers.”
As for NBC, one would have to have been headless not to see its Thursday cataclysm coming. It must be a painful blow, given the historic importance of the night to advertisers. NBC’s Thursday night has been corroding for years, victimized by the network’s insistence on scheduling niche comedies with ever-more-limited appeal, the audience for whom is comprised largely of television critics and industry insiders who apparently consider more mainstream comedy to somehow be beneath them. A broadcast audience has simply got to appeal to a broad audience – the way NBC does on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, for example.
To be fair, I’m sure NBC didn’t expect “The Michael J. Fox” show, a new comedy on which it had pinned much hope for the revitalization of its Thursday night, to be as unremarkable as it has turned out to be. It’s not necessarily a bad show, but there has been absolutely nothing special about the episodes that followed its well-received pilot. Similarly, the very pleasant “Welcome to the Family” is so low-key that it barely has a pulse, despite the appeal of its cast. (For what it’s worth, I could have done without that stupid scene at the end of last week’s episode in which the two dads punched each other in their testicles to get over their differences.)The greater issue here seems to be that most of the studio and network executives who work in comedy and the producers and writers who work so diligently to impress them seem to be fantastically out of touch with what the American viewing public wants to watch. In fact, it’s easy to think that they have no idea what the American viewing public actually is. This is especially true on the economic level. If “Modern Family” weren’t so consistently funny it would have faded years ago, because its characters inhabit an unreal world free from economic concerns, and how many of us can identify with that? Relatable comedies about families with very little money are as scarce as dramas about people over fifty. “The Middle,” “Mom” and, dare I say, “Raising Hope” are three very different but genuinely entertaining comedies grounded in economic reality as most people experience it. Why are there so few of them?