Last week, a lot of announcements were made about NBC’s Thursday night comedies, specifically Community. First it was announced that they were picked up for a fourth season (yay), but later that it would only have an episode order of 13 instead of the usual 24 and it would be moved to Friday nights following Whitney. That certainly doesn’t seem like the move of a network that has faith in a show. Then, late last week, the studio that produces the show, Sony, announced that creator and showrunner Dan Harmon would no longer be in charge of the series but would have “creative input.” Harmon later stated on his personal blog that he was “fired.” Now, this is a huge blow to fans of Community, of which I am one, but moreover it’s a blow against people who watch and enjoy this type of show in this way. This is NBC taking a stand against smart television.
Community has been a critical darling and a fan favorite since it premiered in 2009; however it’s never really had the ratings to back it up. How does that happen? Well it isn’t that uncommon. Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock have also never done very well in the Nielsen Ratings, despite being adored by lots of critics and comedy fans. (Both of these shows are also getting shorter, 13 episode seasons and will definitely be the final season for 30 Rock) With all three of these shows, despite not receiving very good numbers, they have quite vocal, if not large, fan bases. This is down to two factors: DVR and Hulu. Community is one of the most watched shows on the entire Hulu site and I’m sure the other two are pretty close as well. My theory about this is the audiences for these shows tend to be younger and more technologically savvy, so they’d have a DVR or get most of their television watching done via the internet. While this is great for building a strong fan base, neither DVR numbers nor Hulu numbers factor into a show’s ratings. Why not, you ask? Because the networks don’t make advertising money unless people watch it live.
For the last couple years, NBC has been the lowest-rated of the major four television networks and it’s pretty clear they’re tired of it, so they need to shake things up. The number one network on TV is CBS and if you look at the majority of their programming (not all, but most), it tends to be procedural dramas with a higher average viewer age and their comedies are all of the old school, multicamera, studio audience variety. What I’m saying is older people watch these shows and older people aren’t as used to using the internet to watch their television. Hence, if younger people aren’t watching television programming the traditional way, then the people who DO, i.e. older people, are dictating who wins.
In the 90s, NBC was “America’s Most Watched Network” and had the slogan to prove it. At the time, its highest ratings were its Thursday night programs, consisting of four comedies and a drama. This was the period of time when the most amount of young people were watching sitcoms, like Friends and Seinfeld, shows that are still praised today and are monsters on the syndication circuit. However, the network’s status began to dwindle with the advent of new technology and CBS, traditionally the network with the oldest demographic, started picking up steam. This also has corresponded to the upsurge of original cable programming, meaning there’s more content to watch and more ways to watch things later. NBC has a history of making programming, specifically comedies, for a hip, young audience, but because the hip, young audience watches their shows later, they aren’t making money off of them the way they were accustomed. These are all generalizations, but TV works on generalizations.
What NBC is doing by effectively shit-canning three of its most lauded comedies is saying, “We don’t care about fans of our programs or Emmy wins or critical praise; we want money.” The three aforementioned shows, of which Community is one, are having their seasons shortened in order to make room for new programming which, from the looks of them, will be less high-concept and more boring as shit. They want to beat CBS at their own game. With Harmon’s firing, shows that take risks and venture to do stranger stuff take a huge hit. Whether he really was as difficult to work with as they say is not as relevant as the implication that innovative and creative people are only as valuable as they money they make. TV is no longer a place where new and different can be nurtured and embraced because the people who watch it would rather watch on Friday morning than Thursday night. The younger demographic, who traditionally dictated programming through their advertising-consumption, have now figured out a way to bypass tradition. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of old fogeys deciding what’s on TV, but until networks and advertisers can better monetize new technology, I’m afraid we’re at the mercy of the baby boomers.