Creative Struggles Look To Continue At NBC

Growing up in the 80s, NBC wasn’t just a television network, it was the television network for me. Cosby, Cheers, Family Ties, Night Court, Wings, Facts of Life, Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere, LA Law, Miami Vice and, of course, The Tonight Show and Letterman. Oh, sure, I may have dabbled in other channels – ABC for Love Boat and Fantasy Island, CBS for Dukes of Hazard, but for the most part you could have turned the dial (yes, the TV had a dial) to NBC and then ripped the knob off and it wouldn’t have affected me much. Brandon Tartikoff was a genius.

NBC kept it rolling into the 90s with Seinfeld, ER, NewsRadio, Friends, Mad About You, Frazier, Will & Grace and The West Wing.  An incredible run of about 20 years of amazing, quality TV. That’s why the current state of NBC is so sad. Yes, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks & Rec and Community have been flying the flag, but increasingly they feel like the dying vestiges of a once great empire, rather than the vanguard of cutting edge entertainment.

In previous seasons you could at least see the thinking behind some of the ideas coming out of Burbank: Super Hero movies were hot, so they rolled out The Cape. Should they have teamed up with DC or Marvel and created a weekly series out of an established character? Of course, but again, you could see the logic.  Undercovers was Hart to Hart meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith as seen by Tyler Perry. Ok, I get that. Was The Playboy Club a blatant rip off of Mad Men? Yes, but at least it was a blatant rip-off of Mad Men. You could understand the thinking that was underlying the greenlighting of these ultimately doomed shows.

Now, thanks to the Olympics, we’ve caught a glimpse of what NBC will be trotting out this fall and, well, it’s grim. No, not Grimm, grim. Let’s look at the heavily promoted sitcom Go On. The show stars Matthew Perry as a sports talk radio show host who… [record scratch sound]. I’m sorry, what was that? Matthew Perry is a TV star at least partly because he looks like a TV star. Radio show hosts are on radio because they look like radio show hosts. In no way is Perry believable as a sports talk radio show host the way, say, Ray Romano was believable as a sportswriter on Everybody Loves Raymond. Romano looks like a sportswriter.

Ok, small point, let’s move on. Wait, hold on, why is he a sports radio talk show host? Is that an inherently humorous profession? Well, NBC had hits with Frazier and NewsRadio and of course there was WKRP in Cincinnati, so this is… well worn turf? Hmm, alright. So, this will b a workplace comedy I guess. No, not exactly. Apparently Perry’s character has recently lost his wife [cue laff track!] and he’s forced to join a support group by his employer.

On paper, I’m struggling with this. Let’s take a look at a teaser promo, maybe it plays better on screen.

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My eyes. It hurts my eyes.

Let’s break this down. Why is there a former Olympic athlete, with her medal, in the group? This spot ran during the Olympics, so they went for the tie-in. But Shawn Johnson, a great athlete and Olympic champion, at this point has no awareness with people so they put her in a leotard and told her to wear her medal. Then, just to make sure, Perry calls her by her full name in an incredibly awkwardly phrased line. And now, here’s comes the punchline, wait for it… wait for it… there’s a guy who’s dressed funny!

Yes, this is just a teaser spot, but in these 30 seconds you learn so much about what is going on at NBC. In the words of cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, NBC is desperately in need of a Chief Culture Officer. Someone who has an understanding of what’s going on in culture, who understands consumer attitudes and behavior.

Go On would have made a lot of sense in 1985. Everything about the show is dated.  The premise is tired. The star, since his success in Friends, has been the lead in two shows, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Mr. Sunshine, which together aired a total of 31 episodes, neither seeing the light of a second season. Viewers have been pretty clear on how they feel about Matthew Perry’s TV career post-Friends.

Recently NBC also announced Michael J. Fox, another former NBC star, was returning. Read Elizabeth Talerman of Nucleus’ take on this development. Money quote:

 “In working with entertainment brands we’ve found that all too often they have a tendency to believe that a single product, act or character will mean salvation and will effect brand turn-around. But to us, this feels like a Hail Mary pass that we simply wouldn’t want any client to have to throw.  Make no mistake about it, a great product can deliver substantial business value in the short-term, but effecting brand turn-around is bigger than any single product and is better revenue insurance for the long-term.”

But those issues aside, what part of the Go On promo plays into how people watch TV today? “OMG, no way! They got @ShawnJohnson for the @NBCGo_On promo!! #hilarious #mustseeTV,” tweeted no one, ever. What sort of second screen experience would you be interested in having with this show?

To further illustrate NBC’s tin ear to culture, here’s an actual tweet from the @NBCGo_On twitter account: “What scene are you most excited to see again in tonight’s first episode encore of #GoOn at 10/9c?”  Just, wow.

What makes this all the more perplexing is that NBC’s cable networks seem to have a much better handle on culture. G4, Syfy, Bravo and USA all create programs that get people talking. Check out McCracken’s great piece on NBCUniversal Cable Chair, Bonnie Hammer. Here’s another.

I’ve got a soft spot for NBC, I want to see them do well, so it pains me to see this sort of thing. I could have given you 800 words on another new NBC show, Revolution, and let’s not even start on Animal Practice.  Unless NBC is ok with being the network of Sunday Night Football and bad reality programming, they need to get a better understanding of consumer behavior, cultural trends and how the modern TV show works.