If you look at the weekly TV schedule, it sure seems like the broadcast networks really love sitcoms. By early November (once Raising Hope returns to Fox and Mike & Molly is back on CBS), there will be nearly 30 half-hours on the air in a given week, not including repeats. Assuming nothing changes, Fox and ABC will each have three nights featuring new comedy, followed by CBS with two and NBC with one. The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family are two major bright spots, but despite the clear commitment to the sitcom, every network has at least one comedy-centric problem area on its schedule. Although it's still early in the season, it's pretty clear that some of these programming blocks aren't really connecting with viewers, quality notwithstanding. Somewhat weirdly, the catalyst for each of these problem areas can be identified in the recent past. Let's break down some of the issues and think about what each network could do in the near future to clear everything up.
PROBLEM AREA(S): Tuesdays from 9pm to 10pm, Wednesdays at 9:30pm
Any time a network trots out an entirely new night of programming, it's a risk. But ABC has had such a messy situation on Tuesdays in recent years that it didn't have much of a choice this fall, especially with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. leading off the night at 8pm. After a big premiere, S.H.I.E.L.D. has dipped, though it's now mostly stable; as a result, ABC is hoping to build a nice hour of new comedy from 9pm to 10pm with The Goldbergs and Trophy Wife. Despite the fact that both shows are strong creatively, they're already down to 1.5 and 1.3 in the all-important 18-49 demo in live viewing. For comparison's sake, Happy Endings was doing about the same in that time period last year. And on Wednesdays, Super Fun Night debuted pretty well, but has already dropped from a 3.2 to a 2.1 in the 18-49 demo, and from 8.2 million viewers to 5.9 million viewers.
Although Super Fun Night is doing better than the two Tuesday comedies, context is key here. The former airs after Modern Family, still one of the more popular shows on TV, and the latter two are on after a new drama that's doing fine against a whole lot of competition from The Voice and NCIS: Los Angeles. For whatever reason, ABC has yet to find—or stick with—a substantive partner with Modern Family. Happy Endings did fairly well, but the network yanked it because it didn't gel with its lead-in... only to put a show like Super Fun Night in the same spot, which also doesn't gel with its lead-in. Meanwhile the two new family comedies on the network's schedule are airing on Tuesday. If you're thinking to yourself, "Huh, that doesn't make sense," you'd be correct. It doesn't make sense.
SOLUTION: Pick one of the Tuesday comedies and swap it with Super Fun Night.
Seems pretty clear to me. You could make a case for either one of the Tuesday-night shows as a Modern Family companion. Trophy Wife is probably the better tonal and experience fit (as Tim has been saying since the start of the season), but its ratings are so low that it's barely holding on as it is, so swapping it with Super Fun would seem odd from a PR standpoint. As a result, the spot should probably go to The Goldbergs. The series' '80s setting makes it a little awkward, fit-wise, but it's still better than whatever weird show Rebel Wilson is starring in at the moment. And maybe ABC could market S.H.I.E.L.D. and Super Fun Night as "The Things You Sort of Recognize from Movies Night!"
PROBLEM AREA: Mondays
With CBS, the "problems" are always going to be relative. The Eyeball still has a number of successes all over the schedule—particularly on Thursdays, where the network's comedy block has successfully launched The Millers (a show that's consistently landed among the top 10 shows in all of TV in live 18-49 ratings) and The Crazy Ones. Both of those shows have grabbed back-nine orders already, only further cementing that CBS, not NBC, has the most must-see comedy block on Thursday nights. Two and a Half Men is still doing okay, despite sizable decreases in viewership.
But on Monday? Things aren't looking so great. The network has already put We Are Men out to pasture, which makes it the second straight 8:30pm show to crater almost immediately while sandwiched between How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls (the first was Partners). We Are Men's axing wasn't much of a surprise, or that damaging on the surface, because the network had steady performer on the bench in Mike & Molly. However, there's a little more to it when you start to consider CBS's struggle to develop single-camera comedies (though The Crazy Ones might be the breakthrough) and the move that accompanied We Are Men's disposal: pushing 2 Broke Girls back to 8:30pm.
If you recall, CBS moved the low-paid ladies to 9pm at the beginning of last season and shifted Two and a Half Men to Thursdays because it thought that the young Kat Dennings comedy could lead that 9pm hour and help expand the Monday block. Just two years removed from 12 million viewers and big demo figures, 2 Broke Girls hit series lows on October 7, its last outing in the 9pm timeslot. The show ticked back up on October 14 when it aired behind How I Met Your Mother, but CBS clearly thought 2 Broke Girls was going to anchor its Monday comedies once HIMYM wrapped up for good. That's not really going to happen now. And while Mike & Molly will give CBS a stronger overall figure on Mondays, it's merely a solid performer and not a longterm solution, hit-wise. Mom is actually kind of interesting, but the overall problems with the schedule that leads into it have prevented audiences from checking in with the show (or with Hostages), like they might have done a few years ago.
SOLUTION: Keep an eye on The Millers—and ultimately consider moving it to Mondays—and hope for the best in development for the 2014-2015 TV season.
Even with the 8pm-to-10pm block likely stabilized for the rest of the season, the future of CBS's Monday lineup is uncertain. Hostages is doing okay once DVR viewership is taken into account, but it's probably done for good after its 15-episode run. (Only time will tell what will happen with Intelligence, which takes over the 10pm slot in January.) CBS is a network where lead-ins still seem to matter, and the weaker comedy block has certainly had some impact on Hostages' performance. But more importantly, HIMYM is over forever in May, leaving CBS without an anchor on what was once its biggest comedy night. There's no way that the network can bring The Big Bang Theory back from Thursdays, and short of just running TBBT repeats on Mondays (which, hey, might work), CBS is going to need something else at the start of the week come fall 2014. It's possible that that something else will be The Millers, which is doing very well on Thursdays (albeit behind The Big Bang Theory, which is undoubtedly helping it). Otherwise, CBS is going to have to hope it can develop its next big, broad sitcom during the spring pilot season.
CBS always seems to be ahead of the curve on these matters—its recent decisions to move Survivor and CSI to Wednesdays and to shift its big comedies to Thursdays were damn smart—and the network knows its audience very well. But it still needs something big.
PROBLEM AREA: Tuesdays
It's difficult to identify one of the better comedy blocks on all of television as a problem, but despite the critical love for New Girl and the growing adulation for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fox's big Tuesday comedy night is struggling to make a dent in terms of viewership. Last week, not even one of the network's four Tuesday comedies topped a 2.0 in the 18-49 demo or drew more than 4 million viewers. Dads, thankfully, is pretty dead (well, except for a pesky request for additional script, but Fox hasn't asked for more episodes yet.) And although Fox gave Brooklyn Nine-Nine a back-nine pickup and a plum post-Super Bowl slot alongside New Girl, the cop comedy's numbers are almost identical to those of the awful Seth MacFarlane project. New Girl, a show that was averaging more than 8 million viewers around this time two years ago and still cracking 5 million last season, has barely beat The Goldbergs in the last few weeks. And The Mindy Project has CW-level viewership numbers (2.7 million viewers on October 15). There's an idea gaining momentum that Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, and The Mindy Project will become some kind of contemporary NBC-style "must-see" comedy block, but A.) The shows aren't there yet on a qualitative level, and B.) Even 2009 NBC would probably scoff at their ratings. Times have changed and ratings are always declining, but we should probably pump the brakes on Fox Tuesday's coronation.
Just like at ABC and CBS, the seeds for this problem were planted before this fall—in this case, just last year. Fox rightfully had a lot of confidence in New Girl as the show entered its second season and that confidence inspired the network to create a full two-hour comedy block with New Girl as the centerpiece. Unfortunately, the show's ratings have been on a downward slide, pulling everything else around it down as well (competition from The Voice on Tuesdays doesn't help). Ben and Kate didn't survive last fall, Raising Hope has been shoved to Fridays, and Fox would have been completely justified if it'd axed Mindy after its poor ratings performance in Season 1. This fall hasn't been that different: New Girl and Mindy are both down more, and Dads and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are just struggling to get by.
SOLUTION: Cut bait on the two-hour block, and try some comedies on Thursday.
What a difference a year makes. Last season, Fox's drama reserves were pretty low. The Mob Doctor failed immediately, but finished out its run because the network didn't have much else to replace it with. That probably allowed Fox to stick with the comedy block, too. But since January, Fox has picked up two relative hits, The Following and Sleepy Hollow, and has Almost Human and Rake still to come. There's no guarantee that the latter two will be big winners, and Fox is (smartly) playing it safe by limiting Sleepy Hollow's first season to just 13 episodes. However, the point is that the network has a little wiggle room, should it want to blow up the two-hour block on Tuesdays in the future. If things got bad enough, Fox could shift Rake or Bones to Tuesdays at 8pm, leaving space for just an hour of comedy from 9pm to 10pm (presumably New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine). That move would orphan Dads and The Mindy Project, but the former can't live that much longer and it might just be time to admit that the latter isn't connecting with viewers the way Fox hoped it would. Raising Hope (which returns for Season 4 in November) and Enlisted (which debuts in January) could keep doing their things on Friday.
However, if I were Fox, I'd at least try comedies on a whole other night: Thursday. Why not move the out-of-gas Glee out of that plum 9pm post-Idol spot and ship it back to Tuesdays to finish out its run? Then New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine could take Glee's place, giving those two shows a real chance to succeed. The network is already trying them out after the Super Bowl, why not another attempted bump? Right now, Thursdays at 9pm are ripe for a new comedy block. NBC's Thursdays are a disaster (see below) and CBS's are vulnerable. If Fox is committed to making live-action comedy work on its network again, it has to do something fast.
PROBLEM AREA: Thursdays
In what will surely be another chapter in the LOL NBC tell-all book, the Peacock's Thursday-night comedy block is as low as its ever been. Lower than when it was just an hour because Jeff Zucker really loved The Apprentice. Lower than when it included Kath & Kim. If you add up the 18-49 demo figures from last week for all four of the Thursday comedies that aired that night (Parks and Recreation, Welcome to the Family, Sean Saves the World, and The Michael J. Fox Show), you get 4.5; The Big Bang Theory scored a 5.2 on its own at 8pm. Just like at Fox, no NBC comedy topped a 2.0 in the 18-49 or 4 million viewers in the live viewing figures last week. Perhaps worst of all is that none of the comedies appear to be doing that well with DVR viewing factored in; people just aren't watching them. Meanwhile, Welcome to the Family has already been canned and the Great NBC Savior, Community, is now scheduled to return in January.
NBC clung to The Office and 30 Rock as long as it could, but despite their declining numbers in the last few years, they were known quantities that a certain segment of NBC's audience enjoyed. NBC spent the last two development seasons pushing for broader comedies that would supposedly have more mainstream appeal. Every new comedy the network tried last year failed, and unless NBC just wants to be nice to Sean Hayes and Michael J. Fox, it is on the exact same path this season as well. There's a version of this season that plays out with Parks and Recreation and Community somehow being the only two comedy survivors... again. NBC president Robert Greenblatt probably pukes in his mouth just thinking about that more-than-likely reality. The niche audiences NBC appealed to for years with the Office / 30 Rock / Parks / Community quartet might have been a more valuable group for the network to chase after all.
SOLUTION: Salt the earth: Get rid of the Thursday comedy block.
No NBC executive wants to be the one who destroys the network's Thursday comedy block; it is the network's legacy. But at this point, Greenblatt would be stupid not to. He didn't like the niche-ier night, and his plan to go broad didn't work either. NBC actually has some nice stuff on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, so it should focus all its attention on trying to come up with a big plan to fix Thursday in 2014-2015. There's nothing to be done this season, which is basically why the network already axed Welcome to the Family and threw up the Greendale bat signal.
So what does NBC do moving forward? That's difficult to say. Going into this season, I thought the network should've considered moving The Voice to Wednesday and Thursday, because it would've gone directly at Fox and American Idol and caused a bit of a sea change for NBC's identity. In theory, NBC could still just shift its Monday and Tuesday lineups to Wednesday and Thursday. That would leave Monday and Tuesday for NBC to tinker with (including putting Parenthood back at 10pm on Tuesdays), but with CBS weakened on Monday and Fox and ABC struggling on Tuesday, now's the time. However, The Voice has done so well this season, building up The Blacklist and Chicago Fire, that I'm a little wary of that plan, and I'm guessing that NBC will be especially nervous about possibly messing up a good thing.
NBC's best move is to try comedy elsewhere, probably after The Voice. After all, Go On and The New Normal did pretty well in that spot last season, only to perish without the singing giant to boost them. If NBC wants to keep The Blacklist and Chicago Fire safe for now, the smartest play might be to trot out a few Voice Thursday specials and just see how it goes. The news that NBC is trying a version of this with with The Voice and SNL in an attempt to save Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show—even at Parks and Recreation's expense—is unfortunately a step in the right direction. Then in the fall, the network should probably consider trying Tuesday comedies. Anything NBC airs on Thursdays is just going to die anyway, so why not put a whole lot of resources behind a couple new shows to roll out behind The Voice next fall, and if necessary, let Community and Parks get beat up for one more year on Thursdays from 8pm to 9pm? It's going to take a while for NBC to dig itself out, but it can't keep doing the same thing and hoping for a different result.
Faced with these comedy problems, what would YOU do if you were a network exec?