NBC's latest Jay Leno debacle — not to be confused with its previous Jay Leno debacles — has at least momentarily distracted everyone from the Peacock network's other woes.
It's been the coldest of winters for NBC. The network ended February sweeps in fifth place, and by mid-March, it slid to third place season-to-date among the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic (behind CBS and Fox). Plus, on March 13, NBC gave up the fight to make Smash a hit and exiled the show to Saturday nights.
If last fall's ratings uptick gave NBC a false positive, on the flip side, network execs hope that this winter's collapse has been a false negative. NBC struggled through the cold months without its three biggest guns — Sunday Night Football, The Voice and new drama Revolution. With the return of the latter two on Monday, the network hopes to at least stabilize its decline.
"Ten of our highest rated fall shows weren't on our air during the first three months of the year," says Jeff Bader, NBC's president of program planning, strategy and research, who points to the shows mentioned above, as well as Parenthood and Grimm among others. "Fortunately at the end of March we'll have three hours of The Voice back along with Revolution and Grimm. That right there should help us considerably. We should regain some of the momentum going into May that we had in fall."
There are no guarantees, however. The Voice returns with two new judges (Shakira and Usher), and American Idol's ratings drop this season could signify that audiences have tired of the TV's singing shows. Also, Revolution is returning with good reviews, but has been off the air for four months, potentially putting a dent in its momentum.
Bader admits the lack of its key players this winter was not ideal: "Next year, we'll plan differently," he says. For one thing, NBC will have the benefit of the Winter Olympics in 2014. The network also has high hopes that this pilot season will spark a new hit, starting with Michael J. Fox's upcoming sitcom.
But that's next year. For now, as it rebuilds, NBC will rely on a reality-heavy schedule to get through the spring. In addition to three hours of The Voice per week, the network just expanded All-Star Celebrity Apprentice back to two hours (it had been slated for just an hour this year). The new Eva Longoria-produced two-hour dating show Ready for Love has been moved off Sundays and into a plum Tuesday night slot behind The Voice beginning April 9. "We changed the schedule to capitalize on The Voice launch pad to launch a new show," Bader says.
Besides reality, NBC also has the new Bryan Fuller-created take on Hannibal, which takes over the Thursday 10 p.m. slot (where Do No Harm lasted just two weeks earlier this year) on April 4. It's a dark, challenging show that has earned critical raves (including from TV Guide Magazine's Matt Roush) but faces tough competition in ABC's Scandal and CBS' Elementary.
But it will likely be The Voice that makes or breaks the rest of the season for NBC. The singing show has been on a ratings roll, and in success could even push NBC back in front of Fox for the season.
NBC, of course, isn't the only network using reality to try to keep its head above water this spring. "There is definitely a shift in how we're watching TV," says Bader, pointing to across-the-board declines. That's why ABC's and Fox's schedules are also full of unscripted fare. Says one rival network exec: "We are all limping to the end."