2005 Fall Schedules: At NBC, Failure Is an Option
It’s nothing negative about TeeVee that’s prompting me to leave. Sure, I would have liked to be paid with something other than expired coupons for McDonald’s shakes at some point in the last nine years. And I never appreciated it on those few occasions when I turned in a substandard article and Snell would slap a “Ben Boychuk” byline on it — I mean, let’s not insult our readers’ intelligence by resorting to obviously fake pseudonyms. But I’m leaving here on good terms; at least, that’s what I’ve told Snell that I said in my exit interview.
No, I’m leaving TeeVee because the demands of the job have just gotten to be too much for me — turn things in on time, make sure everything’s spelled properly, don’t just make stuff up when you’re too lazy to look them up on Google. Really — who needs that kind of hassle? Instead of this hectic, fast-paced job, I want a gig where little is asked and even less is expected. I want to work for an employer that simply wants me to show up each morning, keep a seat warm, and not pocket too many office supplies before I punch out promptly at 5 p.m. And, if on occasion I should blunder spectacularly, my ideal employer wouldn’t so much as say “boo” — if anything, I’d expect a reassuring pat on the back and a generous bonus. In short, I’m hoping to land a gig where sustained mediocrity is considered to be the gold standard and colossal screw-ups are dismissed as no biggie.
Which means that I hope NBC is hiring.
I figure there’s no plausible reason — other than a high tolerance for failure and a healthy appreciation for inertia — to explain why we aren’t witnessing a mass exodus of disgraced programming executives from 30 Rockefeller Center. Consider the year that NBC just had: it plummeted from first place to fourth place among networks, with only the WB and UPN to break the fall. It fiddled while two of its flagship shows — Friends and Frasier — took their long-overdue curtain calls and failed to replace them with hits of equal or greater value. In fact, of the eight shows NBC introduced in this space last year, just two will be back for seconds in the fall — with Joey picked up for a second year only to keep Matt LeBlanc away from the cutlery in the NBC commissary.
If you or I turned in a performance like that at work, we’d be hastily flinging our personal effects into a cardboard box as security made a beeline for our cubicle. So obviously, the higher-ups at GE are busily cutting the brake line on NBC/Universal Television Group president Jeff Zucker’s car and debating the exact amount of scotch to pour down his throat so that the authorities will buy whatever happens as an accident, right?
Nope, Zucker’s still gainfully employed. And despite his best efforts to appear humbled by his network’s spectacular flameout — “We’re not where you want us to be,” he told advertisers at last week’s upfronts. “We get it.” — he’s still spouting off patently ridiculous things, like this quote in The New York Times:
“As I’m sitting there now and watching Full House with my kids, I’m thinking two things,” Mr. Zucker said. “First, that I can’t believe this was a humongous hit. Second, that I know we have shows that are as funny as this.”
Dare to dream big, my man.
It isn’t as if Zucker has a tremendous track record of success, something that would make you dismiss this past season’s performance as an aberration instead of the inevitable result after years of squandered opportunity. He took over programming duties for the Peacock Network in December 2000. The major hits that have aired on NBC during Zucker’s tenure — your ERs, your West Wings, your Wills & Graces — were introduced under his predecessors. Zucker can claim credit for… well, let’s let his NBC biography damn him with faint praise:
Zucker put his mark on the network with such successes as Las Vegas, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and The Apprentice.
As far as legacies go, that’s like being voted “Most Likely to Continue Drawing Breath” in your senior-class yearbook. Both creatively and financially, Las Vegas and Criminal Intent are modest successes at best. And The Apprentice fell into Zucker’s lap after even more incompetent executives at ABC took a pass on the project.
So what’s Zucker’s solution to turn around NBC’s woes next fall? Not surprisingly, it relies heavily on trotting out the same ol’ same old and hoping that the situation fixes itself.
Start with Will & Grace, which returns for what seems like its 20th consecutive final season. I could have sworn going to a movie theater last fall and sitting through a Will & Grace commercial featuring a tinkly piano playing a melancholy version of “One for the Road,” suggesting that Debra Messing was dying of a rare disease and that Eric McCormack was being shipped off to the front in the morning — or at least that Will & Grace would wrap things up by the summer. But apparently Jeff Zucker desperately waving around a large check convinced the show’s producers that the straight-woman-and-gay-man-are-best-friends-forever plotline has a few more stories in it. Anything to avoid coming up with another idea for a show, I guess.
Preceding Will & Grace on Thursday nights is the aforementioned disappointment Joey. Those of you who clicked through to the New York Times article linked to up above may recognized both of these shows as the ones blamed for torpedoing The Apprentice’s ratings. Naturally, they’ll be back in front of The Apprentice next fall.
In other perplexing sitcom moves, Scrubs — easily the best show on NBC right now, which is actually more of a compliment than it sounds like — is nowhere to be found on the fall schedule. NBC hasn’t cancelled the show, mind you — it’s just holding back Scrubs as a midseason replacement for when one or all of its other series inevitably fail. Because when you’re a struggling network in a ratings free-fall, the one thing you want to make sure to do is keep those successful shows out of the public eye for as long as possible.
As proof that laughter isn’t something you hear much of in the halls of NBC these days, the network has only one new sitcom planned for the fall schedule — My Name is Earl, in which Jason Lee plays a scruffy loser who wins the lottery and decides to turn his life around. While this sounds like a premise that could maybe sustain three or four episodes at most — again, not a major drawback considering the shelf life new shows normally enjoy on the Peacock Network — reliable sources who attended NBC’s upfront presentation say that the clips from My Name is Earl suggest that the show is very, very funny.
Those same reliable sources said the same thing about the clips from Joey shown at last year’s upfronts, incidentally.
As for dramas, ER and its rotating cast of 730 people, all of whom have been added during the last two seasons, will return to its customary 10 p.m.-on-Thursday time slot. West Wing moves to Sunday nights, with the likelihood that President Sheen will soon give way to either Hawkeye Pierce or Victor Sifuentes. The political drama takes the place of American Dreams, which NBC cancelled. Guess we’ll never find out how the ’60s ended. (Hint: Badly.) Joining American Dreams in the scrap-pile are the long-cancelled LAX and Hawaii and the freshly shitcanned Revelations and Law & Order: Trial by Jury. That latter cancellation is significant, as it marks the first time that NBC’s Law & Order copy machine has suffered a significant paper jam. For a programmer whose response to even modest successes is “Get me five more shows just like that,” the apparent running-dry of the Law & Order well removes a significant tool from Zucker’s arsenal.
So what joins ER, West Wing, Crossing Jordan, the three surviving members of the Law & Order franchise, the not-as-terrible-as-you-might-expect-from-the-Profiler-like-premise Medium, and the exactly-as-terrible-as-you-feared Las Vegas in NBC’s dramatic lineup next fall? First up is E-Ring, a Wednesday night drama that promises to take our minds off those troubling headlines about the unending war against terror with ripped-from-the-headlines plotlines about the unending war against terror. On Sunday night, there’s a soapy medical drama set in and around a fertility clinic called Inconceivable, which sounds a lot more entertaining if you imagine the Wallace Shawn character from The Princess Bride saying the title of the program. Also, this figures to be one of the first network programs in which masturbation is a recurring plot point — especially now that ABC didn’t pick up the sitcom Joel Stein was working on. Finally, Monday nights will showcase Fathom, a spooky, weird-things-is-happenin’ show in the vein of Lost that poses this question in the press release announcing its launch.
Ever wonder what life would be like if a new form of sea life began to appear in locales all over the earth?
You know… I haven’t wondered that. Not at all. Let’s move on.
On the reality front, The Biggest Loser — so named because NBC deemed that Laugh at Fatty, America was too cruel — returns. It’s joined by Three Wishes, since NBC apparently noticed the terrific success enjoyed by Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and decided Red State America couldn’t get enough of sob stories in which down-on-their-luck folk are showered with trinkets and baubles by TV personalities. Assuming the Ty Pennington role of benevolent TV sugar daddy in this production — hopefully with much less mugging for the camera — is banal pop songstress Amy Grant.
“Everyone secretly wants the chance to fulfill a lifelong wish that seems beyond their grasp — and this show will help transform those dreams into a life-changing reality,” says NBC Universal Cable Entertainment & Cross-Platform Strategy Jeff Gaspin in the press release trumpeting the existence Three Wishes. You couldn’t be more right, Jeff. Here are my three wishes, just in case Amy Grant plans on stopping by the Casa de Michaels anytime soon: 1) I hope you brought bourbon and Davidoffs. 2) Do you think you could get the Oakland A’s some right-handed power hitting? 3) Please burn all remaining copies of “Baby Baby.”
But you know… I just can’t shake the sinking suspicion that I’ve heard of this show somewhere before. Even the title seems familiar — like it’s the sort of thing some group of wisenheimers would think up for an April Fool’s Day parody of reality TV. Oh… goddamnit!
Zucker, you lazy bastard — the least you could have done is change the title. You’re really lucky we have terrible legal representation.
The Apprentice will be back, of course. Whether its audience comes back, too, is another question entirely. As mentioned above, The Apprentice lost viewers last season — about seven million of them, according to the Times. And while some of that can be laid at the feet of its drab lead-ins, it’s also worth considering that perhaps The Apprentice is suffering the same fate as all reality shows not named Survivor or The Amazing Race — after the first or second go-round things can get a little stale. There’s only so many ways you can fire people, after all — at least, not without a major overhaul of this country’s labor laws and a really comprehensive liability waiver.
“Mr. Trump, have you decided which one of us apprentices you’re going to fire this week?”
“I’d like to answer your question with a question, if I may: have you ever heard of a game called Russian Roulette?”
So what do you do when one of your flagship shows loses some of its luster? Tweak the premise to keep things fresh? Pull it off the air until mid-season in the hopes that absence makes the heart grow fonder?
Maybe you do — unless you’re employed by NBC, in which case your only course of action is to produce a second version of your flagging program. After all, it’s that same strategy that got the once almighty Who Wants to Be a Millionaire where it is today — over-exposed, cancelled and airing in perpetuity on cable right after Match Game ‘79.
And so this fall, America will have the opportunity to not only shower the original Apprentice with its growing indifference. On Wednesdays at 8, we’ll also have the chance to get sick of the sight of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.
I don’t doubt the first Apprentice spinoff featuring the disgraced domestic goddess will enjoy an early surge of viewership thanks to the undeniable train-wreck factor — Is this the week Martha shows us how to decorate for a prison wedding? How to craft a shiv out of an old pinecone? Or is she just going to snap this week and start screaming “Back off, bitches,” at the contestants? — but I suspect, it will turn out to be the kind of abject failure most NBC-backed ventures eventually become. And this time next year, when viewers are hurling their TVs out of third-story windows to avoid watching the inevitable Apprentice-Joey cross-over episode and NBC is being out-polled by informercials on Pax, I fully expect Jeff Zucker to appear at another upfront session unscathed with another bold plan to lead NBC back to the glory days of mediocrity.
May his reign last for a thousand years.
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