In the biggest moment of NBC's upfront presentation — at which the network previews its upcoming fall schedule for gathered ad buyers — NBC president Bob Greenblatt sat down at a piano and accompanied famous country music singer Dolly Parton on her immortal hit "I Will Always Love You." It was everything Greenblatt has done well in his era at NBC: bold and brassy and filled with a sense of showmanship. But it was also tied to a project — a series of TV movie adaptations of Parton's most famous songs — that feels completely inexplicable.
That's where NBC finds itself at the end of the 2014-'15 TV season. The schedule it presented is a confused mishmash of things that worked at one time and blatant attempts to copy programs that've succeeded on other networks. It overrelies on big, live events.
That strategy paid off for the network in the 2013-'14 season, when it soared into first place, but it didn't work so well in the 2014-'15 season, when a slew of high-profile duds caused NBC to fall by 7 percent in the ratings. It will likely retain its status as TV's number-one network among young viewers — but only just barely, and without the Super Bowl, which boosted its schedule this past winter, that likely wouldn't be the case. (Greenblatt pointed out during the network's presentation that the last time NBC aired the Super Bowl — in 2011 — it tied for last, so at least it's improved over that.)
If you just want to look at the schedule and read about the new shows, click here. For everybody else, here are five quick thoughts I had after surveying NBC's new lineup.
1) NBC has no idea what it's doing
When NBC hit the top spot on the strength of singing competition The Voice and crime drama The Blacklist, it became clear that Greenblatt's strategy was to simply copy shows that worked for other networks, then put just enough of a spin on them to make them seem original. For everything else, sprinkle with sports and the occasional live musical. It was mercenary, but also kind of brilliant.
In this recently completed season, however, that strategy hit a wall. State of Affairs, the short-lived Katherine Heigl vehicle, desperately wanted to be Scandal but with stronger cases of the week. It failed. Similarly, the comedy A to Z, an attempt to capture some of How I Met Your Mother's magic, came and went.
On its 2015-'16 schedule, NBC is simply doubling down on what worked for it and other networks in the past. Medical drama Heartbreaker sounds like a reject from Shonda Rhimes's office. Mysterious thriller Blindspot sounds an awful lot like The Blacklist — right down to the secret list of crimes that must be solved (on Blindspot, they're etched into a woman's skin as tattoos). Heroes Reborn is just Heroes, uh, reborn.
Everything about this schedule feels like a network that's blindly flailing, not a network that could end up the number-one network on TV. There's an air of desperation here that NBC hasn't had in a while.
2) If all else fails, air something live
NBC does know one thing: people like to watch live events. It scored with live performances of The Sound of Music (in 2013) and Peter Pan (in 2014), and even if ratings were down for the latter, they were still great. Meanwhile, sitcom Undateable enjoyed a mild increase for its own live episode, and Saturday Night Live continues to be one of the network's strongest performers.
So NBC is just going to throw even more live stuff on the air next year. Undateable will be live every week. So will Neil Patrick Harris's new variety show. The Wiz (with Stephanie Mills, who originally played Dorothy on Broadway, as Aunt Em) will be the latest entrant in NBC's series of live musicals. And that's to say nothing of the NFL, which will continue to dominate NBC's Sunday nights.
In some ways, this is smart strategy. Live events are at least somewhat DVR-proof, in that they encourage live-tweeting and the like. And no network has attempted a live season of a TV series since Fox did so with Roc in the 1990s, so Undateable will at least have history on its side.
But the main reason live events work so well is either that their contents are very much in doubt — as with a sporting event — or because they have novelty on their side. Once something is live all of the time, is there any way the latter can still be true? Roc's live season — its second — trended downward in the ratings, for instance.
3) Moving The Blacklist was probably a mistake — but NBC can't admit that yet
The show has done all right for itself on Thursdays — where it moved after a tenure on Mondays — but it hasn't dominated its Thursday-night competition like it did on Mondays. Indeed, it's failed to best the incumbent champion, ABC's Scandal, at all. (It draws more viewers than Scandal, but fewer of them are in the younger demographics advertisers are most interested in.) It also didn't help that the second season of The Blacklist was, by most accounts, a convoluted mess. (I tuned out long ago.) Still, it would be worth it to NBC just to be in business on Thursdays — if it could find anything else to air with Blacklist.
Part of the problem was that NBC didn't have anything to pair with The Blacklist on Thursdays this spring. America almost instantly avoided The Slap and Allegiance, so The Blacklist was stuck on an island by itself. NBC has the glimmer of a right idea for 2015-'16 by pairing the show with The Player, starring Wesley Snipes as a gambler who bets on crime.
But the lead-in to The Blacklist is a reboot of Heroes. And, look, Heroes was a hit show for a couple of years, but by the end of its four-season run, audiences were actively avoiding it. The show has a reputation for playing host to one of the most disappointing collapses in TV history. Does NBC really want to bet heavily on that?
4) NBC also doesn't have the slightest clue what to do about comedy
To be fair, this problem bedevils every network not named ABC, but it's remarkable how NBC simply called uncle on the whole genre for the fall. Just one hour of comedy airs on the network's schedule — and that's on Friday, one of the lowest-rated nights of the week.
Undateable is a pleasant enough show, and it's particularly fun when the actors involved get on a roll (which might speak well to the series going all live, all the time), but it's also a really weird show to make the centerpiece of a network comedy lineup. And the premise for People Are Talking, as described by NBC, seems to literally be, "This is a show where people sometimes discuss things."
The real issue here is that NBC built its network brand on smart, funny comedies. It's not that a network can't shift its brand — and it's also not like NBC didn't struggle to launch new comedies in recent years. But ABC has found great success by returning to its core comedic identity of being the home for family comedies. Why has NBC had so much trouble doing the same?
Still, the audience at NBC's upfront seemed to respond warmly to midseason comedy Superstore — and the network was only too happy to play up the program's potential as a retail-set The Office. Maybe there's something there.
5) If all else fails, NBC wants to put on a spectacle
Greenblatt attempted to connect the dots between an upcoming miniseries about soldiers, the network's live production of The Wiz, and the series of Parton films by saying the lineup reflects the network's diversity. And maybe that's true. But I think it's far more indicative of NBC's desire to put on a spectacle, above all else.
Even NBC's most "typical" programs are inflicted with some sort of big, buzzy element (outside of People Are Talking, which seems like a write-off). Blindspot has a woman covered in tattoos emerging from a duffel bag in Times Square. Heartbreaker features several dramatic reversals in its trailer. And the network is even reviving Coach — yes, that Coach — because at least you've heard of Coach.
The problem is that if everything is an event, then nothing is. NBC could turn The Sound of Music into a sensation, because there was nothing else like it on the air. But what happens when everything is a loud, flashy presentation designed to wow you as much as possible? Maybe that works, but even if it does, it's an easy strategy for other networks to copy, and then NBC will find itself in an arms race for the biggest, craziest idea. Network TV, to some degree, craves stability. NBC is betting that to stay on top, it can beat those odds.