NBC goes from laugh-fest to sob-fest

NEW YORK • Next season, NBC wants to make you laugh and cry, but it mostly wants to make you sob.

It is a big mood swing for the TV network, which for decades was the king of comedy, from Seinfeld and Friends in the 1990s to the workplace sharpness of 30 Rock, The Office and Parks And Recreation this century.

But laughter is giving way to sobbing. Comedies are quickly vanishing from the top broadcaster's prime-time schedule.

At Monday's presentation, where the network pitched its line-up to advertisers, it spent very little time on mirth, going to a tear-filled well again and again.

It emphasised This Is Us, referring to the family drama repeatedly and bringing out the entire cast to the Radio City Music Hall stage to take a bow. A schmaltzy teaser for the new season - complete with star Mandy Moore choking up and losing it several times - was given a prominent slot in the presentation.

Ditto for footage for new dramas The Village, a figures-from-the-neighbourhood ensemble that looks to challenge This Is Us in the Kleenex-pulling department; Manifest, a family melodrama about survivors of a mysterious plane crash; and New Amsterdam, a medical drama with plenty of angst.

NBC has scheduled just one new comedy for the fall, with I Feel Bad tracking a complicated mum and career woman.

In fact, only one NBC night in autumn will show comedy - Thursday, when the fare includes its Will & Grace revival and I Feel Bad.

The network was de-emphasising comedy so much during its pitch that when advertising sales chief Linda Yaccarino came out late in the presentation to hype what Madison Avenue executives had just witnessed, she skipped the few half-hour yukfests entirely, instead stressing the "pure emotion" of This Is Us.

What has made NBC so cool to comedy? Clearly, a list of failed shows over the past few years have played a role.

And the success of This Is Us - the second season regularly drew more than 10 million viewers - has spurred the network to try to build off that triumph.

But a more fundamental change may also be a factor. Comedy has proved hard to launch in the age of viral video, as audiences tend to gobble up laughs in five-minute chunks, leaving the broadcast networks to focus on more engagement-minded dramas that the Internet cannot easily replicate.

In 2011 and 2012, eight comedies cracked the TV ratings top 20 among the all-important adults 18-to-49 demographic. Last year? Just two did. And this past season saw very few new comedy breakouts.

But networks have not given up on comedies. The big numbers for ABC's Roseanne revival testify to that. But NBC is proving that a winning strategy can be built with very few comedies, as its dramas (plus singing-contest show The Voice and the Winter Olympics) help it cruise to a 2018-2019 first-place finish among adults aged 18 to 49.

Viewers may cry, but NBC executives are laughing all their way to the bank.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2018, with the headline 'NBC goes from laugh-fest to sob-fest'. Print Edition | Subscribe