Oh, the vagaries of the network-TV racket. The boasting and the busted promises.
One of the principal attractions of the mid-season TV press tour is the opportunity to assess how the major U.S. broadcasters are doing, midway through their selling season. Few other industries require the top execs to turn up, face critics and justify their decisions.
First up was Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment. He appeared for us, all relaxed and everything, and said, "What a difference a year makes. Last year I came here right off the top and said we had a bad fall. I'm not saying that this year."
True enough. NBC has been the No. 4 network for years. This TV season, so far, its audience has grown 19 per cent, putting it second overall behind CBS. In younger viewers coveted by advertisers, it is in first place.
There are three reasons for this, all of them examples of how mercurial success in network TV has become. We'll get to those in a minute.
First, there are NBC's plans for the immediate future. The dramas, comedies and reality shows that will be surefire hits.
Well, Michael J. Fox pitched them a comedy show about a guy in the media biz with a Parkinson's-like disease who is dealing with his family, job and illness. It's based on his real-life experience, obviously. The show is only in development and a first reading by actors will take place this week. That's nice, and an attention-grabber if it actually makes it to the NBC schedule.
There's a show going into production about Dracula, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers from The Tudors. That's nice too, and Meyers is a sexy fella admired by lady viewers. But it's also possible that by the time it airs, the whole vampire thing will be so over.
In the short term, NBC has just launched Deception (Mondays, 10 p.m.). The fact that the drama, a murder mystery set among the super-rich, was formerly titled Infamous, and before that, Notorious, tells you that NBC even struggles with titles. Clearly meant to piggyback on the popularity of ABC's tangled drama Revenge, it debuted this week to mixed reviews. As in "awful," " too generic" and "unintentionally hilarious."
There's also a new drama based around the serial-killer Hannibal Lecter character, but Greenblatt vaguely tells us, "It might air before the end of this season." The subtext being that a new sensitivity about violence on TV might keep the show on the shelf for a very long time.
Returning soon is Smash, the most high-profile and promoted of NBC's dramas last season. About the ins-and-outs of staging a Broadway musical on Marilyn Monroe, it's a pet project of Greenblatt, who has considerable Broadway experience on his résumé.
Smash was no smash hit last year and several people charged with running the series left it. Now it is getting a major reboot, with new writers and cast members. What's odd about Smash is that for a series about the messy side of making a musical, it is formidably bland.
What NBC has going for it right now, and what has put it up there in second place, is The Voice, NFL football and the drama Revolution.
The problem is that The Voice is a singing reality show that can only be milked for ratings for a short period. Another problem is that the looming Super Bowl brings the end of the NFL season and, with it, bumper viewer numbers for NBC. The third problem is that Revolution is off the air until mid-March, when it returns at last with new episodes.
In network TV nothing beats a strong stable of hit shows watched week after week. NBC doesn't have that. Sports and singing shows only deliver temporary success. A block of dramas and comedy is the concrete foundation of network success. NBC's success is built on quicksand.
Much depends on Revolution, one of the very few new shows on any network to muster a sizable audience. It hovers just outside the Top 10 most-watched shows of the 2012/13 season and if it can hold on to its audience and move into the Top 10, it will be a major success for NBC.
Set in a postapocalyptic future devoid of electricity, it's one if those shows that has a peculiar, multilayered appeal. On the one hand it has elements of The Hunger Games, and a young, attractive cast on a tension-filled journey of survival and discovery. On the other hand, it's a show that, unintentionally, appeals to people in search of simpler times and simpler pleasures. When the cast and producers met the critics here, a continuing theme was the show's emphasis on a world without cellphones, laptops and TVs. Giancarlo Esposito, who plays a bad guy, claimed that the show had inspired him and his family to spend Christmas without cellphones, computers and TV. "We talked. We sat. We looked at each other. We put down our technology. That came directly from the inspiration of what this show has done in my life." Creator J.J. Abrams echoed the theme, saying he was learning to do without communications technology for days at a time, because the show made him think about that.
This is an interesting angle to Revolution, but it suggests that it has a certain gimmicky appeal. More time was spent talking about the no-technology angle than about the show's substance and storylines. Abrams co-created Lost, and Revolution is not Lost. It's a thin, surface-appeal series, and by the time it returns in March a portion of its fan base might have discovered something else to watch.
In fact, there's a connection between the appeal of Revolution and NBC's plight. There are so many alternatives to network TV that the audience is ever more fickle. These are not simpler times. They are more competitive and complex times.
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