NBC’s president of entertainment is urging the creation of programs that appeal to trendy niche audiences, not large family ones.
Of all the major broadcast networks, in recent years NBC has been the most notable failure in creating successful new comedies. This is surprising; not only does the network own the legacy of producing huge audience-pleasing comedies, from Family Ties and Cheers to Seinfeld and Friends, but it has a large stable of Saturday Night Live comedy alumni upon which to draw for talent and inspiration.
Yet according to an article in The New York Times, NBC’s President of Entertainment, Jennifer Salke, wants to discard the mass success of the network’s past comedies, and replace it with new comedies that will fail to connect with a broad audience. And this fall NBC, along with the other broadcast networks, is taking deliberate steps to create them. “NBC, ABC and Fox are suddenly serving up audacious, almost experimental prime-time humor more in keeping with cable networks like FX,” notes the Times.
It is notable that the Times chose FX as its ground for comparison. Infamously, FX is home to the animated atrocity Archer, which features unbelievable levels of graphic gore, sex, and profanity. Archer’s creator, Matt Thompson, calls his own program “cartoon porn.” The cable network has also produced programming like Starved, a “comedy” about bulimia, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which has devoted episodes to such “humorous” topics as abortion, child molestation, and people dying of cancer.
According to the Times, Salke wants her network to air comedy “that is specific and sophisticated…That might mean that it’s not for everybody.” Unfortunately, broadcast TV’s track record clearly shows that, in network executives’ eyes, “sophisticated” usually translates to “filled with profanity, crude sex jokes, and toilet humor.” While most people would think of “sophisticated”comedy as being subtle, witty, and engaging in clever plots and wordplay, “creative” Hollywood types, network executives, and sycophantic critics laud programs like 2 Broke Girls, Two and a Half Men, and How I Met Your Mother for their alleged “sophistication” – consisting of an endless parade of fart jokes and explicit discussions of sex.
Such a model would fit perfectly with Salke’s new programming strategy. Disdaining “ending up in the not-so-special middle [with] broad and soft, trying-to-please-the-whole-world kind of shows,” Salke instead wants comedies that“rely on passionate fans” – necessarily a much smaller group.
This perspective is downright bizarre. The president of America’s oldest and biggest (NBC has the most affiliates) television network is publicly stating that she wants to air programs that are “not for everybody” – in other words, that the network should deliberately make programming that is unappealing to a mass audience, so long as a tiny core of people like it.
It must be admitted that Salke’s disdain for the preferences of a majority of Americans is nothing new among the Hollywood elite. Famously, in the early 1970s infamous “rural purge,” CBS cancelled every program with a rural setting, even though several were still getting good ratings. The network took this step in an attempt to appeal to a more “trendy” audience. This mentality of destroying family-friendly programs in order to air more “edgy” ones continues today; in 2014 Salke’s boss, NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt, acknowledged, “Most of [the popular dramas on cable] are little, tiny niche shows that we all think, in our bubble of New York and LA, are massive, cultural game changers. In fact, my family in Indiana and Illinois have never heard of them. They didn’t get it. They didn’t care… The entire country, in spite of the fact that we live in a very liberal business, does not want to see lots of sexuality. They do not want to hear language. They do not want to see serial killers running around being the centerpieces of shows. They don’t watch those kinds of shows.”
But even given such history, Salke’s call for more “niche” programming is a major reversal on the part of broadcast network leadership. Even while admitting that much of the entertainment industry’s programming is unpopular and offensive to most Americans, Greenblatt at least gave lip service to the notion that a broadcast network should produce programming most people like. Salke’s statement is a true departure for a major broadcast network executive: she is openly proclaiming that it is better for the network to drive away the vast majority of casual viewers, including families, in the hope of gaining a few “passionate” ones. This is like alienating five old friends for the sake of making one new one.
It would be interesting to see how well this sentiment resonates with the advertisers who sponsor NBC’s shows. Most advertisers want their commercials seen by as many consumers as possible; but this will hardly be the case if Salke’s vision comes to fruition. It seems unlikely that most advertisers will be satisfied with 10 “passionate” customers, rather than 1000 casual ones.
Salke’s thinking is guided by two individuals. The success of their film The Lego Movie has apparently made Phil Lord and Christopher Miller the go-to gurus of the Hollywood elite.
Asserting that “We’re not in as much of a big-tent landscape anymore,” Lord and Miller urge the creation of more “high-concept” programming like ABC’s The Muppets, and Fox’s The Last Man on Earth, about the lone survivor of an apocalypse. (Not coincidentally, Lord and Miller are the executive producers of the latter.) Yet neither series has caught on, either with “niche” audiences or mass ones…though it’s worth noting that the first few episodes of The Muppets had a huge viewership, which rapidly evaporated once parents and families saw the drinking,sexual innuendo,and mean-spirited characterizations that ABC’s showrunners imposed on the formerly family-friendly franchise.
Indeed, The Muppets failed because it turned characters beloved for their family-friendly optimism into snide, mean-spirited, shallow, and self-obsessed stereotypes of typical Hollywood behavior – precisely for the purpose of appealing to “passionate” niche audiences by making the beloved children’s characters “trendy,” “ironic,” and “subversive.” Those in Hollywood thought a small, “passionate” audience would love the new take on the innocent characters. The result was that ALL audiences – niche and mass alike — reviled the show and deserted it in droves.
Perhaps the most revealing observation is Miller’s lament that TV today is “competing not just against what’s on television right now, but against everything that’s been made in the history of television,” with programs from I Love Lucy to The Andy Griffith Show to The Brady Bunch to Family Ties still in reruns on cable, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, and digital broadcast subchannels like MeTV and Antenna TV.
Lord and Miller claim that, as a result of the continued popularity of and competition from such TV classics, modern shows must “push beyond accepted boundaries.” But if old comedies like Leave It To Beaver are still drawing viewers, maybe it’s because audiences desperately crave something free of offensive content, which they can actually watch with their families.
The answer to broadcasters’ dilemma is not to produce ever-more sordid and extreme programming, but to compete with established family classics by producing more new family classics now.
But such programming won’t make network bosses look “cool” at their high-priced cocktail parties with fellow hollywood insiders. It would only please millions of viewers who are now deprived of anything suitable to watch with their children. And it would serve “the public interest.” That may be a legal obligation of holding a license to use the public’s own airwaves; but what self-respecting Hollywood “creative” would make a program appealing to the ignorant hicks in flyover land, rather than a tiny clique of Beverly Hills hipsters?
Instead of desperately churning out programs with ever-wilder and less-relatable premises – which, really, are nothing more than modern versions of shows like I Dream of Jeannie and My Mother the Car with sex, gore, and profanity — maybe the networks ought to try something *really* radical…like a comedy which eschews non-stop sex jokes and toilet humor. And instead of desperately trying to be “trendy” and pandering to a tiny clique of elitists, maybe the networks ought to consider making programming that touches viewers’ desire for happiness, optimism, and warmth.
You know. Something the entire family can watch.