Every May, the TV networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers at an event called the upfronts. They aim to sell their new shows to ad buyers at the highest possible price, while the ad buyers try to stay skeptical. It's an antiquated ritual that, nonetheless, is enormously important to the business of TV, and we'll be there all week.
Last spring, when NBC1 announced its fall schedule for 2015, I jeered, "NBC's 2015 fall schedule strongly suggests it has no idea what it's doing." I took the familiarity of its new programming — so many shows with "Chicago" in the title! — to suggest that the network was coasting and had no idea how to do anything but air football every week and hope for the best.
NBC is owned by NBCUniversal, a major investor in Vox Media, which publishes Vox. They even mentioned us twice onstage today!
I was sort of right. NBC's long-term strategy still mostly boils down to "football." But the network rebounded from a difficult 2014-'15 season to come up with a 2015-'16 lineup that solidified a lot of weak points with new hits like Blindspot. It developed its first genuine breakout comedy in ages with Superstore. And, yes, even though fully three shows on its schedule are Chicago Something-or-Other (and all come from veteran Law & Order producer Dick Wolf), people can't seem to get enough of that franchise.
NBC has the same problems as every other network, in that people are starting to abandon the traditional broadcast model en masse. But that's where all the money still is — and NBC's claim of being the No. 1 network for the third year in a row is ... disingenuous, to put it mildly. (It's only true if you don't count the Super Bowl, which aired on CBS. And while you can sort of see the argument — the Super Bowl is so huge that whatever network airs it almost automatically moves into first place — it's not like the Super Bowl doesn't exist.)
But NBC is in better shape than I gave it credit for at this point last year. And its 2016 upfront presentation shows why. Here are five things I think about NBC right now — and will inevitably retract in 2017.
1) The fall schedule is dead; long live the fall schedule
NBC used its upfront to showcase a confusing mishmash of programs from both the flagship network and the many cable networks owned by NBCUniversal, including USA, Syfy, and Bravo.
Instead of presenting its fall schedule in order, day by day (you can see the full schedule here), NBC mostly pretended the schedule didn't even exist. Programs were loosely grouped together by the audience they ostensibly targeted, but those audiences were barely defined groups like "dreamers" and "fierce" (a.k.a. "women," apparently) and "champions." It eventually became impossible to figure out what the company was attempting to do, because trailers for new shows arrived so haphazardly.
And yet this is probably the future of upfronts all the same. Instead of trying to interest advertisers in a cohesive schedule of shows as it has in the past, NBCUniversal is trying to get advertisers to think of its shows as discrete entertainment units during which they can buy programming. Does it matter if people watch Mr. Robot on USA, or on demand, or on Hulu, or months later on Amazon Prime? Not to NBCUniversal, which boasted 30 million viewers for a show that, uh, didn't even get close to that figure in live viewership.
The problem is that a cohesive schedule probably still matters to advertisers, who continue to see primetime broadcast TV as the best way to reach a wide audience as quickly as possible. So the presentation struck an awkward pitch between reassuring everybody that TV is here to stay and trying to break TV down into its composite parts and sell each to the highest bidder.
And yet, it's still in NBCUniversal's best interests to convince advertisers to start thinking of its shows as items that just sort of exist, independent of networks or time slots or anything like that. Truly, the future is now.
2) Except NBC also really, really loves live TV and big events
Last summer, I got into a discussion with a fellow TV journalist about NBC's weird commitment to promoting Coat of Many Colors, its one-off TV movie based on a Dolly Parton song that debuted in December 2015, to the detriment of many of its new fall shows.
At the time, I wondered if the network might not be assigning too much weight to major events, at the expense of the more traditional and typical TV lineup.
I still can't prove my hypothesis, but NBC provided me some strong evidence during its upfront presentation. The network looked only at the biggest nights of television — which it defined, let's just say, somewhat speciously — and it was thrilled to announce that it had won 70 percent of those nights.
Now, to be clear, this is NBC making up a bullshit rubric it can use to claim victory over something meaningless. But it reveals what the network values, and what it values are big nights with big events, like football games or the Golden Globes or The Wiz Live or, yes, Coat of Many Colors. (Or the Super Bowl and the Oscars, to name two "big nights" NBC didn't broadcast.)
TV is, in some ways, a war of attrition, with many smaller battles adding up to a much larger conflict. NBC, increasingly, seems to believe the only way to win that war is to shock and awe.
3) Don't look now, but NBC is kinda rebuilding its once renowned comedy slate
For the first time in ages, NBC has two young comedies — Superstore and The Carmichael Show — that are genuinely worth watching. While neither is a massive hit, both have held their own in tough time slots, without a lot of support from other NBC shows. And NBC is even betting big on Superstore being able to go up against TV's No. 1 comedy, CBS's The Big Bang Theory, on Thursdays.
The network is pairing Superstore with the new offering The Good Place, a kinda weird high-concept comedy (in that it's literally set in heaven) that nonetheless stars Kristen Bell and Ted Danson and hails from Parks and Recreation creator Mike Schur. It's also got a new comedy from the Tina Fey and Robert Carlock producing duo (though neither will be showrunning) and what looks to be a funny parody of true crime documentaries like Making a Murderer called Trial & Error.
NBC's comedy development is still the weakest of the big four networks, but it at least looks like it's trying for the first time in ages. And if The Good Place, in particular, is worthwhile, the network could have the building blocks for a genuinely good two-hour comedy block on its hands. Baby steps.
4) NBC is so glad it owns Olympics broadcasting rights and employs Jimmy Fallon
The upfront presentation even opened with Fallon marching down the aisle of Radio City Music Hall, while singing songs from the musical Hamilton that had been rewritten to contain lyrics about NBC programming. (In the annals of questionable decisions, an anodyne white comedian singing songs from a musical that's groundbreaking for its diversity, rewritten to appeal to advertisers, is, sadly, pretty typical.)
And throughout the presentation, the network crowed about how massive Fallon's dominance of late night is — he leads CBS's Stephen Colbert and ABC's Jimmy Kimmel combined! Seth Meyers, host of Late Night, which immediately follows Fallon's Tonight Show, even came out to thank Fallon for being such a great lead-in. This makes sense, on some level. After all, Fallon's dominance is unlike any other part of NBC's schedule. But it still ended up feeling repetitive.
However, if NBC is happy about Fallon's general existence, then it's really happy the Rio Olympics are happening this summer. It brought them up over and over and over, and it even trotted out dancers and drummers to offer as much of an approximation of Carnival as could be mustered in a room full of ad buyers.
5) But NBC still doesn't really know what it's doing
The key, however, is that it's increasingly clear that nobody else does either, outside of maybe CBS, and CBS currently seems incapable of doing things that don't make people angry. (Maybe that's the secret to its success.)
NBC's "big events" strategy bore fruit during the 2015-'16 season, but who's to say the next TV season won't be a return to the 2014-'15 season, when many of those events fell flat? Betting on major events that people have to watch in the moment is a good way to placate advertisers, who really would love everyone to return to watching live television as much as possible. But TV is a business based around shows, because a hit show can buy you five to 10 years of great ratings, rather than one night's worth.
For now, though, NBC's overall approach is working, and with the Olympics coming up this summer and still more live musicals and Dolly Parton movies on the way, it should continue to work for at least another season. As a short-term strategy, it's not bad. As a long-term strategy, it's about the same as lighting everything on fire. But, hey, it's not like anybody else has everything figured out.