OK, NBC. You’ve already upended the traditional network model by putting a talk show in primetime five days a week next season. But if you’re going to blow your schedule up , then in the interest of quality programming and serving your viewers and advertisers, then starting with Monday’s “infront” presentation, you really need to commit. In other words, it’s time to blow it up real good.
By running Jay Leno at 10 p.m. ET every weeknight starting in the fall, you’re cutting your traditional schedule by five hours — and probably losing some short-term ratings battles in the process (although given the performance of some of your 10 p.m. series this season, you’re probably used to that). I get the business reasons behind the Leno move — his show will be a lot cheaper than producing five dramas for those hours, and it will be in originals far more often than scripted shows.
But it’s also turned off a lot of fans, who see the move as just another loss for quality scripted (and unscripted, for that matter) series on network TV, and another reason not to watch NBC next season. You can fix that, if rather than just trotting out a regular network schedule with the last hour chopped off, you change up the way you do business by scheduling more shows but with shorter seasons, scheduling as few repeats as you can and actually committing to the series you do put on the air.
This season may actually be the perfect opportunity for you to try something like this, because the Winter Olympics will cut the 2009-10 season pretty neatly in two. The Winter Games will fill your schedule from Feb. 12-28, allowing you essentially to offer up two different seasons.
The talk about shortening “Heroes” to 18 episodes or so next season? That would make it a perfect fit for the fall part of your season. It could run for 12 or 13 weeks from late September to early December, take the holidays (a time when no one watches much TV anyway) off, then return in early January for five or six episodes before the Olympics begin.
Want to bring critical darling “Chuck” back but still concerned about its not-great ratings (7.2 million viewers, 2.5 rating in adults 18-49)? Then lower your risk a little and pick up 13 or 15 episodes. In fact, do that with most of your series. Shorter seasons will allow for more focused storytelling and not force you to stretch a 22-episode order out over 36 weeks. It will mean fewer reruns and more new content on the air — thereby easing the loss of 10 p.m. weeknights in the fall.
If you do that, though, there’s one thing I can’t stress enough: Have a little freakin’ patience. Now, if something tanks as badly as, say, “The Chopping Block” did, no one could really expect you to keep it on the air. But you’re already in fourth place — is it really gonna kill you to leave a well-reviewed but maybe only marginally rated show on the air for its full 13 episodes and see if it can get a real fan base going?
You want a little continuity on the schedule? Fine. You’ve already renewed “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “The Biggest Loser” for next season. Give those veteran shows their usual 22 to 25 episodes and let them anchor a couple nights (the comedies on Thursday, “SVU” at 9 on Tuesdays and an hour-long “Biggest Loser” wherever you might need it).
You could even use that small amount of time between New Year’s and the opening ceremony in Vancouver to experiment a little — maybe give a new show a six-episode tryout, and if it does well, order up a few more for spring 2010.
Word is, NBC, that you won’t be announcing a complete schedule at the presentation Monday, just what you’re bringing back and which pilots you’ve picked up to series. That makes some sense, I guess — better to see what the other guys do and then make your schedule rather than announce a slate and then have to change it around a bunch in reaction to other networks’ moves, as was the case a few years ago.
I’ll be curious to see what you come up with on Monday, NBC. I hope it includes more “Chuck,” and I really hope it’s more than just a Leno-fied version of a traditional network schedule. Your downward spiral has to end sometime (doesn’t it?). Might as well start next week.