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Must-See TV vs. TGIT: NBC Is Poised to Take Back Thursdays

NBC's big move couldn't have come at a better time

Joyce Eng

NBC's new fall schedule was conservative on new shows -- only one new drama and zero new comedies -- but the network made one huge move: It will resurrect its iconic Must-See TV brand, anchored by This Is Us' shift to Thursdays and paired with the return of Will & Grace, Season 2 of Great News and Dick Wolf's new limited series Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.

NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt wisely didn't overemphasize the Must-See TV revival, telling reporters Sunday that the lineup is "as close to Must-See TV as we've had in our history," and that they're not going to be promoting the brand with "100-foot letters atop the Empire State Building, but we're going to use it." Baby steps, you know? But it's hard not to overstate what a baller power play it is to go after ABC -- or more specifically, Shonda Rhimes -- and that NBC is here to take back what it probably feels is rightfully theirs: Thursday nights. And this is the perfect time to do it.

ABC's once white-hot TGIT helping of Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder had been gradually faltering but plummeted this year: Grey's, ever durable, is down slightly, but Scandal and Murder dropped 34 percent and 26, percent, respectively in the all-important adults 18-to-49 demographic. And with Scandal set to end next year and Shondaland yet to produce a hit since Murder in 2014 (which was modest at best), the crown is ripe for the taking.

The actual ratings crown, of course, belongs to The Big Bang Theory, which moved to Thursdays in 2010, but outside of Sheldon & Co., CBS hasn't been able to construct its own version of Must-See TV/TGIT, ratings- or buzz-wise, on Thursdays.
NBC's 2017-18 fall TV lineup: Everything you need to know

Its competitors' woes are only part of the equation; NBC still has to deliver on the night, and in true #tbt form, it's banking on nostalgia to do it. That's the other ingenious part of this resurrection. In the age of Peak TV, any kind of name recognition helps, and nothing stokes the nostalgia flames like the beloved Must-See TV tag.

The bloc is designed expressly for that purpose. Former Must-See TV staple Will & Grace has enough heat on it to pull in big numbers at least the first couple of weeks if not ride it all the way through its 12-episode run. Great News is the opposite of a ratings smash, but its renewal is a vote of confidence for the Tina Fey-produced comedy and a sign that NBC is keen to stay in the Tina Fey business. Fey will also make guest appearances in Season 2, Greenblatt announced Sunday. Tina Fey in a quirky workplace comedy? It's like the 30 Rock mastermind almost never left Thursday nights! And The Menendez Murders doubles-down on the retro with a Law & Order label in its mouthful of a title and an old-school true crime case.

Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson, Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson, This Is Us

Milo Ventimiglia as Jack Pearson, Mandy Moore as Rebecca Pearson, This Is Us

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

But it all rides on its NuMust-SeeTV cornerstone, the poster child of nostalgia fuel, This Is Us. It is unquestionably risky to shuffle a hit show you know is working in one place to another, especially in this viewer-erosion era. Plus, it hasn't really worked out for some of NBC's other high-profile moves -- Revolution, Blindspot and The Blacklist have all failed to duplicate their post-Voice success elsewhere on the schedule. But This Is Us is an anomaly; it continually outdrew its Voice lead-in on Tuesdays as the season went on. It has proven it can stand on its own, and the truth is this is the ideal time to test it elsewhere and make a statement. The benefit of being a breakout hit is that the impending sophomore season still carries that afterglow halo of the dream first season. Even if This Is Us doesn't topple Scandal head to head -- there's female viewership overlap -- it will at least make a dent, and it will definitely beat whatever replaces Scandal (Shondaland's For the People?). (This is assuming Scandal airs a full seventh season and This Is Us remains on Thursdays for its already-renewed third season.)

More than anything, it's clear that NBC has been patiently waiting for the right time to strike after Must-See TV died in name in 2006 and went through various iterations of "Comedy Night Done Right" before being put out of its misery in 2014, right when TGIT started. The successive years were infamously so bad that NBC had to sell Fey's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Netflix because it didn't have a comedy brand to support it. It needed the right alchemy of ingredients and timing.

Like most things in life, TV goes through phases. Grey's first moved to Thursdays in 2006, right after Will & Grace ended, and now they'll face off. And to hear former NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield, who currently produces Fargo and The Handmaid's Tale, tell it in his 2012 book Top of the Rock, Must-See TV's demise started when his successor Jeff Zucker dumped The Apprentice there in 2004. That, he said, was an assault on the brand and disrespected the legacy of the comedy and drama hits that came before it (not wrong). So what better time to revive Must-See TV than with President Trump forced to watch the demise of his Emmy-less franchise?

NBC will never replicate those halcyon days of Must-See TV in the '80s and '90s, where it utterly clobbered any and all competition. It's a different time now, but this is a bold, necessary step for a return to form that can pay off in the long run.

For more, check out everything we know about NBC's fall schedule.