Network television is a cyclical business. Any network – or program – can be up one year and down the next. When a network falls from grace, the rise back to the top can be arduous. Just ask ABC, which season to-date now ranks fourth in the key demographics of adults 18 to 49, adults 25 to 54 and adults 18 to 34. Or look at Fox, which took a tumble once "American Idol" began to fade.
But there is hope.
Once in that same boat, NBC managed to find the path back, and is now well positioned for the future. Excluding seasons in which the network aired the Super Bowl or the Olympics, NBC is having its largest audience in nine years at 8.54 million viewers this season, according to Nielsen.
The path to improvement, however, was not a quick one, and neither was it easy. After the era-defining success of "Must-See TV’ staples like "Seinfeld" and "Cheers," the network suffered a seemingly endless stream of scripted duds. To name an illustrious few: "Lipstick Jungle," "Undercovers," "Crusoe," "Life," "Dracula," the utterly unnecessary "Knight Rider" remake, "Free Agents," "Kath & Kim," "Guys With Kids" and "Animal Practice." Meanwhile, veteran series like "ER" and "The Office" overstayed their welcome. And resuscitating the 10 p.m. hour after the infamous "Jay Leno Show" fiasco took years.
So, just how did the network do it? I talked to Jeff Bader, NBC’s president of program planning, strategy and research, for some insight into the process of remaking a moribund network.
Learn from past mistakes
"One of the first things we needed to do was fully recover from the Jay Leno experiment," said Bader, who joined the network in 2012 after a stint at ABC in a similar role. "We had to rebuild the 10 p.m. weeknight hour, which is of great importance because it leads into the late affiliate newscasts. And a stronger local newscast is beneficial to our late-night line-up, which can also help ‘Today’ the following morning."
Initially, "Dateline" was called to duty twice per week to replace Leno, as was Jerry Seinfeld reality series "The Marriage Ref." But the obvious solution was to find new hit scripted dramas.
Safeguard what you already have
"We were already airing ‘The Voice’ when I arrived," said Bader. "And combined with ‘Sunday Night Football,’ we had two solid platforms to promote our product. But the perception was that was all we had, so the arrival of ‘Chicago Fire’ in the fall of 2012 was a key move forward. We also had to make sure ‘The Voice’ would remain fresh for years. It is just too important to us."
By rotating hosts and continually tweaking the format, "The Voice" five years later, remains a permanent fixture of the Top 10. Meanwhile, "Chicago Fire" has spun-off "Chicago PD" and "Chicago Med," with the fourth drama in the franchise – "Chicago Law" – a strong contender for next season.
Be aggressive and take risks
"We needed to find new building blocks," Bader said. "So, we positioned ‘The Blacklist’ out of ‘The Voice"’ in the fall of 2013, and then moved it to Thursday night in February 2015."
At the time, NBC was airing low-rated comedies "Bad Judge" and "A to Z" in that Thursday 9 p.m. hour.
"We knew going in that ‘The Blacklist’ could lose some of its audience on Thursday, and it did," noted Bader. "But it completely ignited the evening and gave us a show to rebuild the night with. ‘Shades of Blue’ now works well out of ‘The Blacklist.’ And this season we had the opportunity to use ‘The Voice’ lead-out spot on Monday for ‘Blindspot.’ "
Keep looking for new comedies
"When we designed the schedule last fall and realized much of the line-up was already spoken for, we decided to try sitcoms on Friday and make ‘Undateable’ live," noted Bader. "Unfortunately, that was not a success. But we were very satisfied with the results of ‘Superstore’ on Monday. And now we are waiting to see how ‘The Carmichael Show’ and ‘Crowded’ fair on Sunday."
With early ratings results middling for the two Sunday night comedies, NBC’s ongoing focus will have to remain in finding the next generation of hit half-hour comedies. But the unexpected bonus is the rousing success of recent comedy/reality hour "Little Big Shots," hosted by Steve Harvey.
"If the ratings hold up in these first eight episodes, we have several options where to air ‘Little Big Shots’ next fall pending Steve Harvey’s schedule," said Bader. "Or we could utilize it once again on Sunday after football season ends. Suddenly, we have plenty of options to choose from."
And, suddenly, the former No.-4 network has enough hit programs to spread across the week. After two straight seasons of winning adults 18 to 49 (NBC would also be dominant at present had CBS not housed Super Bowl 50), a third season of demo leadership is not out of the question, particularly with the August arrival of the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics.
"Combined with ‘America’s Got Talent,’ we will have a tremendous promotional platform to use this summer for our new fall line-up," said Bader. "As long as we keep finding the next generation of new hits, I think we can keep the momentum going."