Two weeks after indulging in a good deal of fanfare over the return of its Thursday night “Must-See TV” showcase, NBC has revised its most ambitious fall scheduling moves, sliding “This Is Us” back to its regular Tuesday 9 p.m. time slot and replacing the hit drama with a second hour of comedy.
Rather than anchoring Thursday night with the revamped “Will & Grace” at 8 p.m. and “This Is Us” in the 9 o’clock hole (the second-year sitcom “Great News” was meant to fill the gap between the two bold-face draws), NBC has shifted the reboot and its battery mate to the second hour of prime. They’ll now grab the baton from the ensemble comedies “Superstore” and “The Good Place” in the 8 o’clock hour.
Booking passage with “This Is Us” to Tuesday night from Thursday is the new anthology series “Law & Order: True Crime: The Menendez Murders,” which will take up residence in the 10 p.m. slot vacated by “Chicago Fire.” Entering its sixth season this fall, the bedrock of Dick Wolf’s Windy City franchise will swap places with “True Crime” to take the 10 o’clock hour on Thursday.
NBC’s decision to yank what seemed to be one of the more crucial pieces of the Jenga puzzle that is its fall lineup came as a bit of a shock, given how much entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt talked up the new-look Must-See TV block during his May 14 pre-upfront call with media reporters.
“Coming off another stabilizing year, which included the launch of one of the great new dramas in a decade, our upcoming fall schedule is both limited in the number of new series and aggressive in rebooting Thursday night,” Greenblatt said during the Sunday phoner. “To create another undeniable night of television, we’re aligning some of our most potent shows on Thursday in order to bring back Must See TV. We are also strategically deploying strong new shows in choice time periods on other nights and nurturing our growing comedy lineup.”
Greenblatt went on to say that along with contributions from Tina Fey and Dick Wolf, the combination of fan favorite “Will & Grace” and this season’s No. 1 new drama, “This Is Us,” was “as close to Must-See TV as we’ve ever had in our history.”
While separating the returning “Will & Grace” from NBC’s big-tent family drama would seem to usurp NBC’s retro ambitions, the revised Thursday schedule is now at least structurally of a piece with the classic ’90s and ‘aughties rosters, which included megabit comedies “Friends” and “Seinfeld” sandwiching more forgettable sitcoms like “Veronica’s Closet” and “Boston Common” before handing off the last hour of the evening to “ER.”
To put Must-See TV into perspective, consider this: In 1997-98, when Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer were kvetching their way into the sunset, 26.5 million people watched NBC every Thursday night, of which a staggering 17.3 million were members of the all-important adults 18-49 demo. (That same season, “Seinfeld” averaged 34.1 million viewers and an 18.0 rating, which works out to around 22.3 million advertiser-friendly Schmoopie enthusiasts.)
After “Friends” and “ER” eventually followed “Seinfeld” into the past tense, NBC’s once-unstoppable Thursday nights soon gave way to ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and CBS’s “Survivor” and “CSI.” The last time a Thursday night NBC comedy drew north of 10 million viewers was back in January 2007, when “The Office” was in the midst of its third season; moreover, the last time NBC so much as scheduled four back-to-back comedies on Thursday night was in January 2014, when “Community,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Sean Saves the World” and “The Michael J. Fox Show” formed a very temporary chuckle block for a three-week pre-Sochi Winter Olympics run.
It’s worth noting that NBC’s about-face isn’t unprecedented. Last May, mere days after walking buyers through its fall 2016 schedule, Fox made a number of sudden tweaks, benching “Prison Break” until mid-season while rushing the rookie baseball drama “Pitch” from the bullpen for an autumn start after originally slating it for a spring debut. And in May 2006, after watching ABC, CBS, Fox and the CW piece together their respective line-ups, NBC under then-entertainment president Kevin Reilly tore up the grid it presented to upfront advertisers and all but rebuilt it from scratch.
If removing “This Is Us” from “Must-See TV” is a blow to anyone nostalgic for NBC’s Thursday night dominance, the changes that the network seem to be fundamentally sound. For one thing, shifting “Will & Grace” away from the laughter vortex that is “The Big Bang Theory” can only help the fortunes of a series that went off the air 11 years ago. (Although “Superstore” is obviously going to take it on the chin as long as it continues to oppose broadcast’s top-rated scripted show.) Meanwhile, shifting “This Is Us” back to its Tuesday night slot breaks up what otherwise may have been a disastrous six-comedy road block, which, as we recently noted, tend to do little more than promote cannibalism.
As for the actual chain of events that caused NBC to slam the brakes on its big Thursday night plans … well, that’s hard to know for certain. NBC is keeping mum on the reasons behind the shift, but at least one observer in the TV space said that the de facto owner of “This Is Us,” 20th Century Fox TV, may have registered its discomfiture with the network’s original choice of making the drama do battle with five weeks of “Thursday Night Football” on CBS. (Not to mention the fact that NBC’s own share of the Thursday NFL package would necessitate five preemptions in November and early December, when an episodic series really starts heating up.)
Ultimately, NBC may have done a disservice to its No. 2 drama, “Chicago Fire,” which also happens to be broadcast’s top-rated 10 p.m. scripted series. For one thing, Dick Wolf’s flagship show will no longer benefit from the big lead-in it enjoyed last season courtesy of “This Is Us,” and it’s hard to imagine that “Great News,” which drew just a 0.8 in the 18-to-49-year-old demo during its 10-episode freshman season, will provide much of a lift for “Fire.” But “Law & Order: True Crime: The Menendez Murders” is a limited series, after which “Fire” could just as easily slide back into its old Tuesday night slot without taking too much collateral damage.
If NBC protected “This Is Us” at the behest of the studio that makes it, as has been reported, so be it. In the final analysis, Greenblatt shouldn’t have much cause to lose sleep at night in the coming season, during which NBC will broadcast Super Bowl LII and the 2018 Winter Olympics. Barring an unforetold catastrophe, NBC will win its fourth seasonal ratings race in five years while raking in as much as $1.4 billion in ad sales on those two sporting events alone. Given the promotional clout of the two big-reach events and its can’t-miss prospects, perhaps NBC will decide to throw caution to the wind in mid-season.