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In News From Worst Possible Timeline, Community Given Worst Possible Timeslot

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If for some reason you don’t spend your days reading entertainment news on the internet like it’s your job or something you may not be aware that there are these things called “upfronts” transpiring this week.

Upfronts are a somewhat antiquated ritual where the big four broadcast networks present their upcoming fall schedules to big advertisers in the hopes of selling advertising time during the shows in advance, or “up front” if you will.

There’s more and more talk that the upfronts are becoming increasingly atavistic in the wake of the way we watch TV now: The big advertisers don’t like having to commit to a whole year’s worth of ad buys at once, the audience for broadcast TV keeps going down etc. However, the upfronts are still useful to TV geeks, especially fans of cult/low-rated shows, as they’re the earliest announcement of new schedules, letting you know if your favorite show has been canceled or moved to a different time slot.

NBC decided to get a jump on its “official” upfront happening today by releasing its full fall schedule to the press over the weekend.  The “big news” – at least among people who like to talk about TV on the internet a lot – concerns Community, the show with the most vocal, intense cult fan base of any television show currently airing, broadcast or cable.

Community has skirted cancellation for most of its run, unsurprising for a low-rated show that’s made no attempt to appeal to a broader audience and in fact has grown more and more self-referential over its three seasons. When it was temporarily pulled from the schedule last fall, fans assumed it had been canceled before the current season.

Now, if Community isn’t truly on the “darkest possible timeline” since we’re here miraculously talking about a fourth season, it’s certainly now in the worst possible timeslot, the classic Friday night at 8:30 death slot. And, inexplicably, the show now has Whitney, a show with similarly low ratings but no respect from TV critics or cult fan base, as its 8 o’clock lead-in.

Whitney was also thought to be a likely victim of cancellation. The conventional wisdom about a move like pairing Whitney and Community on Friday night, and giving them 13 episode orders as opposed to the normal network TV 22 episode orders, is that this is simply sending the shows to a bad timeslot to die.

However, NBC president Bob Greenblatt has not officially said that this is what he’s doing, and he did explicitly say so when he moved the similarly cult Chuck to Fridays for its final season last year. Greenblatt has even made some comments that suggest he’s open to ordering the proverbial “back nine” episodes depending on how the first 13 do. While this likely isn’t enough for Community fans who won’t be satisfied with anything less than “six seasons and a movie” it is somewhat encouraging.

Additionally, NBC has not completely given up on Friday nights as they’re one of the network’s few success stories from the last year. Amazingly, Grimm - which comes on after Community at 9 – is the highest rated scripted series to air on Friday nights according to Todd Van Der Werff of AV Club. (I know!)

There’s also precedent for cult shows having some success on Friday nights, including The X-Files and, most recently, Fringe.  Fans point to the likelihood of a cult fan base being willing to stay in on a Friday night to watch their show and the likelihood that most people watch these type of shows timeshifted anyway as reasons that Community could at least maintain its current ratings on Fridays.

From my perspective the only real insult in moving Community to Friday is that NBC has taken it out of its designated high quality/low ratings Thursday night comedy block, where it’s always seemed to have protected status alongside other low rated/critically respected shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. In the fall NBC Thursday night comedy will run as follows: 8 p.m.: 30 Rock, 8:30 p.m.: Up All Night, 9 p.m.: The Office, 9:30 p.m. Parks and Recreation. None of these show are new or new to Thursday night. In a disturbing blog post (at least for me and my fellow Gen-Xers) Alan Sepinwall argues that the way NBC is handling Thursday signals the end of NBC Thursday night “Must See TV” as we know it.

In the past NBC launched its big new comedies in the 8-10 slots on Thursday and its big new drama at the 10 pm slot. This model allowed NBC to dominate at least this night for over 20 years, from the era of The Cosby Show and LA Law to the era of Friends and ER.

NBC tried the same tactic this past season with disastrous results. The Thursday at 10 slot became a graveyard for ambitious, expensive dramas. The network started by putting everything behind a remake of the UK series Prime Suspect starring Maria Bello, which was written off immediately seemingly because no one could get over the ridiculous fedora that Bello was forced to wear during promos for the show, a fact that was referenced hilariously in the most recent episode of 30 Rock. 

At the 10 o’clock timeslot NBC then attempted a television series version of The Firm which was canceled almost immediately. And, most recently the timeslot was the home of Awake, another ambitious (and excellent) canceled TV series by Lone Star creator Kyle Killen, who now has the misfortune of having made two great network TV drams that lasted less than one full season.

NBC appears to have just given up on drama development at the 10 on Thursday timeslot and are now airing the low rated Rock Center with Brian Williams at that time. One hopes it won’t be too confusing to have two TV shows named after the same Manhattan office building complex on the same night.

NBC is also trying to milk The Voice, it’s one big, broad ratings hit, as much as it can. However, even The Voice suffered a precipitous ratings drop in its second season. Hilariously, Greenblatt’s response to this is to try to find a way to incorporate the show’s trademark swiveling chairs into the later “battle rounds” but he says he’s “not at liberty to say” how. Clearly they haven’t figured out how yet. The whole thing sounds like a 30 Rock C story. One can just imagine Jack Donaghy forcing the writers (and for some reason Kenneth) to pull an all-nighter to come up with something.

Besides all these reshufflings it should be noted that NBC’s fall schedule includes a pretty bold number of new shows, particularly comedies, though none of the comedies sound like they have the potential to be cult/critical favorites like Community or Parks and Recreation.  The network has also invested in a number of ambitious-sounding dramas from big name producers including J.J. Abrams, Dick Wolf, and Bryan Fuller. For further details on NBC’s fall schedule, including night-by-night breakdowns, see the links below:

Fall schedule announcements: NBC makes small steps in overcoming its crippling fear of success [AV Club]

NBC sets its 2012-13 fall schedule [HitFix]

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