Remember when Titanic’s Jack Dawson was standing on the bow of the world’s greatest ship declaring, ”I’m the king of the world!” and then a couple of days later was shivering in the North Atlantic trying to stay afloat? That’s NBC this season. After it shattered its losing streak with a triumphant first-place victory in the ratings last fall, executives celebrated in a conference call with reporters. ”It feels great!” declared NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt. But then The Voice had its Dec. 18 finale, and NBC’s prime-time lineup hit a ratings iceberg. One by one a trio of lifeboats were launched: the new soap Deception, the Jekyll-and-Hyde medical drama Do No Harm, and the White House sitcom 1600 Penn (starring Josh Gad, Bill Pullman, and Jenna Elfman). None proved seaworthy. In fact, Do No Harm set a record as the lowest-rated in-season drama debut in modern history (yes, worse than The Mob Doctor!) and was axed after two episodes. The network turned to Smash for a bailout, but the musical drama’s second-season premiere on Feb. 5 drew a bleak 4.5 million viewers. And as if all that weren’t enough, Up All Night star Christina Applegate announced on Feb. 8 that she’s quitting the comedy midway through its second season, saying the show — which is being revamped into a more traditional, three-camera sitcom — has ”taken a different creative direction.” (Insiders speculate that the changes to the series may have given the actress an opportunity to exit her contract.)
What just happened? ”One or two shows does not a network make,” says a rival broadcast executive. ”NBC got the fall right, but their lineup is just too thin to sustain it over the course of the season.” The Voice’s winter break hurt in particular. The reality hit airs on two nights, so its loss yanked a key piece from NBC’s prime-time Jenga tower — ratings for the network’s freshman comedies Go On and The New Normal, for instance, have collapsed without its support. Mega-rated Sunday Night Football going on its similarly unavoidable hiatus didn’t help either. But the biggest problem was simply that NBC’s new midseason shows — all of which garnered middling reviews — are just not that interesting to viewers. ”What I tell my clients is the only shows that work anymore are somebody’s favorite show,” says one top-tier agent. In other words, a series must be great enough to be outright loved by at least some people, particularly if The Voice isn’t around to lure folks into the fold.
Though it probably won’t cheer up the Peacock, it’s been a chilly couple of months for new shows on other nets, too. While Fox’s The Following is pulling solid ratings, viewership for TNT’s David E. Kelley medical drama Monday Mornings is mediocre, FX’s The Americans saw its numbers drop after a strong debut, and veteran hits like Fox’s American Idol and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Revenge are below par. According to Nielsen, the number of households using a television within the networks’ key young-adult demo is down 2 percent so far this year. Perhaps they’re watching shows online instead? One title that has gained some buzz is Netflix’s thriller House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, though your guess is as good as ours as to how many people have actually watched it; Netflix refuses to release any viewership figures.
So NBC’s shows are tanking, other shows are slumping, and bird flu is back. Clearly the end is nigh, right? Well, no. If NBC’s season proves anything, it’s only this: Fortunes can change quickly. The network is doubtless counting the hours until the return of The Voice (with new coaches Usher and Shakira stepping in for Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera, who are taking a cycle off) and freshman drama Revolution in late March. NBC also has a promising serial-killer thriller, Hannibal, waiting for a seat at the table. And to find new hits, NBC’s development team is investing heavily in pilots for next season — a whopping 26 and counting. (For more on fall pilots, see page 26.) As for Up All Night, let’s be honest: It’s no Two and a Half Men in the ratings; NBC may try recasting, which is awkward, but it’s worked out before. Plus, NBC had one ray of sunshine last week. Perpetual underdog comedy Community returned after a lengthy hiatus to unexpectedly higher ratings. Yes, we’re now in Opposite Land, where Smash is a flop and Community is a success. Cue the loopy circus music (or perhaps some Celine Dion).