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The Culture Hole, Episode 18: You Can't Always Get What You Want

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Episode 18: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

(But if you try sometimes, you might find you get more Community than you were ever owed, because you have unrealistic expectations, you dicks.)

Late last week, after numerous rumours broke about their intentions, NBC started the announcements for which of their television series would be returning in the fall season.  Earlier in the week, the word was that they would renew 30 Rock, Community and Parks and Recreation for truncated final seasons.  In the end, it shook out quite differently: 30 Rock will get a final 13-episode season, Community will have a thirteen-episode fourth season with no decided end date and Parks and Recreation, against the odds, has been given a full 22-episode fifth season.

Throughout the unveiling process, a variety of emotions were expressed by fans.  Anger!  Sadness!  Relief!  Concerned optimism!  Finally, anger again as the network announced that Community is being moved to a Friday timeslot following the also-renewed Whitney.  After all, Friday night is the death slot, right?

Actually, you might just be wrong about everything, and I’m here to tell you why.

First, let’s consider the “death slot.”  The shows I imagine a lot of people are thinking of with that name – and the changing of a series’ timeslot – are ones like Firefly and Wonderfalls, shows that Fox canceled all too soon.  Here’s the thing, though: NBC isn’t Fox.  Hell, Fox in 2012 isn’t that Fox anymore.  Under Kevin Reilly, Fox is the network that moved Fringe to Fridays (it was getting murdered by Seattle Grace Hospital on Thursdays), promoted the hell out of it (how many third season genre shows do you know that get widespread TV and billboard campaigns announcing a schedule change?) and gave it two more seasons after that.  And if Fox can change, we might have to consider that NBC can, too, no matter how recent the Conan/Leno debacle or the Community hiatus are in our memories.

Why?  One word: Grimm.  One of NBC’s two new dramas of 2011/12 that are sticking around, Grimm debuted on Friday.  It was the first NBC show to get renewed for 2012/13.  It is the NBC’s success, despite its most recent episodes getting numbers in the 18-49 demographic that can only be described as “slightly worse than Community.”  Putting Community as the lead-in to one of the network’s only successes isn’t an insult; it’s a vote of confidence, as NBC President Robert Greenblatt said:

“The show has its faithful audience and they will follow it to the ends of the Earth, and I really wanted to do something to invigorate Friday because we love Grimm. So I thought, let’s move a show where the audience will move with it. I actually look at the positive side of it.”

Then, he threw in an, “Although no good deed goes unpunished,” because hey, the upfront season is the perfect time to be a little passive aggressive.  Whatever.  If the price of one of my favourite shows coming back is that a network president kind of insults some people who are kind of being dicks anyway, I’m fine with that.  Because like it or not, Community has the audience it has.  The immediate return to its regular ratings after an initial rise once it returned from hiatus shows that it is, at least at 8pm (7 Central) on Thursday nights, a pretty reliable quantity.  A quantity that, if it sticks around on Fridays, will be an unqualified success.  Only viewers decide the rest.  Greenblatt is betting on this.

Next, the matter of the Whitney lead-in.  Despite the fact that it could be argued that getting the timeslot directly leading into Grimm could actually be seen as a compliment, the reality is that no matter what you think of Whitney creatively (I am firmly in the “it is pretty okay to me, whatever, watch something else if you don’t like it” camp, for the record), it pulls slightly better numbers than Community with an even tougher competitor (American Idol instead of The Big Bang Theory).  Just in case you think otherwise, let’s get something straight: TV is a numbers game and a business above all else, and whatever you might snarkily think of it, Whitney might just be better at 8pm than Community, which is pretty much going to have the numbers it’s going to have at this point, three years in.  It’s a known quantity and that’s a quantity that NBC says will stick around regardless of its lead-in and could help Grimm out.  Its job isn’t to try and be a big star in its fourth year; it’s a really good utility player.  Its job is to get on fucking base or at least bat in a run or two.  I’m okay with that, because it means the show, for however long it does, is sticking around, and that’s a good thing.

Actually, a correction.  It’s a fucking miracle.

Here’s the blunt truth: NBC is has been the last-placed major network for a few years now and all its attempts to be otherwise have been pretty disastrous.  Community, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock especially have been disappointments.  They are pulling numbers that would get a show canceled on literally every other broadcast network; almost all the canceled comedies on ABC, CBS and Fox did better than the ones NBC has renewed.  Critical acclaim has helped them stick around too, at least for a while, but at some point none of that matters if a show isn’t doing well, and NBC is not doing well.  The only reason these shows have stuck around is because they had the good fortune to be on a network that didn’t have anything that could do better, but NBC would be wrong to just keep bringing them back, few or no questions asked.  They would be irresponsible and they would be stupid to do it, and I’m glad they’re not.

Believe it or not, even if every one of NBC’s existing comedies ends after next season – which isn’t a given – this actually presents the smartest decision they’ve made in years.  It’s definitely the gutsiest one that didn’t involve putting Jay Leno on at 10pm instead of developing new shows, and it’s infinitely smarter.  Don’t think NBC believes in its comedies?  It is bringing every single one of them back.  It has picked up seven new ones.  That is thirteen comedy shows in total, which is insane.  They’re expanding to four nights of comedies instead of two by adding Tuesday and Friday.  There are five hours of comedies on the network’s fall schedule.  The network believes in its comedies so much that it’s doing little else.  It’s making a change.

With its dismal numbers, a change was needed, too.  If NBC doesn’t want to stay fourth place forever, it needed to add new shows to the lineup, and what they appear to be doing – gradually winding down their older comedies, encouraging sophomores like Up All Night that still have the chance to grow  and introducing a wealth of new series – is the Hannah Montana [Ed. Note: Best of Both Worlds] of the network’s options.  They could have canceled Community easily, been completely justified and slept well at night afterward.  Instead, it gets to wind down with (at least) a fourth season, one that brings the cast to the logical end of their time at community college anyway.

Even more, instead of an abrupt change (like putting Jay Leno on at 10pm or rebooting almost its entire lineup), the network is going a gentler route, and what that looks like is the 2012/13 season: all the old comedies and a bunch of new ones.  What will 2013/14 look like?  Who knows; that depends on this upcoming year.  But at the end of the day, I can’t help but think this is the smartest thing NBC could have done.  Give existing fans what they want – if they can stop complaining to notice it – and keep them tuning in.  Try to bring in a bunch of new ones with shiny new shows without years of continuity or baggage to keep people from engaging.  Hope something sticks.  It’s certainly a far cry from a few years ago, when NBC under Jeff Zucker gambled on cheap instead of content development, and to me, it’s an encouraging change.  NBC is the network that changed the face of sitcoms in the last few decades with Seinfeld and Friends.  They’re obviously trying to be that network again, which is only a good thing.  They want to make Must See TV again, and whether or not that’s realistic given the expansion of original cable series, it’s something that would be flat-out impossible if they just kept going with what wasn’t working when it came down to numbers.

Speaking of numbers, by the end of next season, even if all NBC’s returning comedies end, 30 Rock will have had seven seasons.  Parks and Recreation will have had five.  Community will have had four, and if it does well, it could easily get more than its 13 Season Four episodes like Chuck did in an almost identical situation.  All of them could have ended much earlier and these aren’t insignificant numbers.  That’s a massive chunk of television – of art – for us to have received, and will have been lucky to get it, because we weren’t owed any of it.  Hell, we’re not even paying for it.  Not appreciating that because we only got 84 episodes and a syndication deal isn’t just kind of dumb, it’s incredibly petty and immature.

Honestly, and I genuinely mean it, this might be the best possible situation.  When I said this to someone when we were talking about the issue, they snapped back by saying that this doesn’t mean that they have to be happy about it.

“No,” I answered, “But it means you should be.”

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