By FRAZIER MOORE
What a bleak winter it’s been for broadcast networks and their new scripted shows!
While the jury is out for CBS’ “Golden Boy,” ABC’s “Zero Hour” was a zero and “Red Widow,” based on early ratings, seems as doomed as its gunned-down mobster hubby.
And then there’s NBC, whose “Do No Harm,” a multiple-identity crime drama, was identified after just two airings as a flop.
But that isn’t the only harm done to NBC. Just as sinkholes dominated recent news, NBC was suffering its share of them across its program schedule.
Its midseason comedy “1600 Penn” is limping, as is its midseason whodunit, “Deception.” In January, Broadway melodrama “Smash” returned for a second season to such dismal ratings it’s since been banished as a lost cause to Saturday night.
It wasn’t supposed to go like this.
Last fall, downtrodden NBC entered the new season with brave but only modest aspirations. Then, juiced on audience-grabber “Sunday Night Football” and further boosted by robust singing competition “The Voice,” the network vaulted to front-runner status, winning 13 of the season’s first 15 weeks.
With full recognition that football goes away each January, NBC’s bosses prayed that the network’s unanticipated surge, plus positive reception for its upcoming new shows, might propel it across the wintry void.
But NBC has been left out in the cold. While CBS reclaimed its customary lead, NBC last month brought up the rear not only behind customary rivals ABC and Fox, but also, for the first time in history, the Spanish-language Univision — “or, as we call it here in Los Angeles, Cinco de Ratings,” as Jay Leno cackled on NBC’s “Tonight” show.
“It’s so bad, ‘The Biggest Loser’ isn’t just a TV show anymore. It’s our new motto,” Leno pressed on. “It’s so bad, NBC called Manti Te’o and asked him to bring in some imaginary viewers.”
If NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt wasn’t joining in the laughter (he fired off an email to Leno saying knock it off, according to The New York Times, a directive Leno continues to defy), you could understand the boss’ misery.
Now, in the next few days, NBC will confront two indicators of how soon, if ever, it can hope to regain life.
On Monday, the network brings back its sci-fi drama “Revolution,” an apocalyptic lights-out thriller produced by fan favorite J.J. Abrams. In NBC’s heady days last autumn, “Revolution” emerged as a budding hit. But in November, it took a midseason break.
Will viewers come back for it now? Can “Revolution” reclaim its hit status on a diminished NBC, however buoyed by the return of “The Voice” as its lead-in?
Little more than a week later, a new series could prove to be an even more revealing acid test of NBC’s prospects. This is a series almost certain to be noticed, talked and argued about, and, most important, sampled by viewers. Premiering on April 4, “Hannibal” must almost be the first broadcast series whose hero is a foodie with a special taste for human body parts.
Based on the characters from Thomas Harris’ classic novels, “Hannibal” focuses on Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter back before the stomach-churning “Silence of the Lambs” and its film sequel.
One hopeful sign for NBC: As a grisly crime show with a psychiatrist-turned-serial-killer (played by Mads Mikkelson) and an FBI profiler (Hugh Dancy) chasing him and his imitators, “Hannibal” bears more than a passing resemblance to Fox’s “The Following,” which stars Kevin Bacon as a former FBI agent chasing a serial killer (James Purefoy) and his network of disciples.
“The Following,” which premiered in January, has been the rare broadcast hit this midseason. Fingers are doubtless crossed at NBC that the audience’s demonstrated bloodlust for “The Following” will now carry over to “Hannibal.”
Either way, the signs are clear that broadcast networks are moving into edgier territory, upping the ante to win audience support.
Or even to be noticed. Consider how on cable this chilly winter, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” has been eclipsing broadcast networks with its flesh-eating zombies. (It had 10.8 million viewers last week, ranking 10th among all prime-time shows.)
On cable’s History channel, “The Bible” miniseries continues to gather huge flocks (10.9 million viewers last week, ranking ninth).
And let’s not forget public television’s “Downton Abbey,” whose third season generated more excitement than anything commercial broadcast could muster. And for its Feb. 17 finale, “Downton” drew 8.2 million viewers, swamping all its competition.
Now viewers are poised for the sixth-season return on April 7 of AMC’s groundbreaking “Mad Men” — one of the first cable series, on one of the first “boutique” cable networks, to steal broadcast’s thunder.
Sure, CBS continues to thrive, big-time, with its old-school slate of hit procedurals and sitcoms. (Last week, it averaged 8.6 million viewers in prime time, more than twice the average for NBC.)
At a moment when social-media buzz and other viewer engagement are metrics of success as never before, CBS’ slate scores in old-fashioned ways: entertaining, reassuring, even pleasantly anesthetizing its audience. The best of this powerhouse pack are meticulously engineered, formulaic and familiar, yet somehow feeling fresh.
Why does “NCIS” work so well, year after year, with an enormous audience? It’s almost tautological: “NCIS” succeeds because it succeeds, as does its Los Angeles-set spinoff along with “Person of Interest,” ”Blue Bloods,” ”The Big Bang Theory” and the rest of CBS’ signature hits. Collectively, they seem impervious to failure. Thanks to these shows, and what they epitomize, CBS seems sure to command a mass audience — at least until its been-there-done-that bubble bursts.
This leaves the other broadcast networks to try to copy not themselves, as CBS does so brilliantly, but rather cable’s celebrated strategy of not copying itself. That’s how shows like “Breaking Bad,” ”Sons of Anarchy,” ”Girls” and “Homeland” happen. But cribbing originality can be hard. No wonder cable is a tough act to follow for broadcast, where cable mojo is cloned with only limited success.
Especially at NBC. So where does this leave NBC, punished by an awful winter and Leno’s wisecracks? Where is its place in the TV world order? It needs to be watched, talked about and, for starters, paid attention to.
Can “Revolution” and “Hannibal” help it find that place in time?
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.