NBC has been in last place amongst the four major broadcast networks for as long as I’ve been covering television ratings (almost six years). Despite the lack of viewers, it has the most popular comedy line-up critically. Community, Parks & Recreation, and 30 Rock are amongst the best-reviewed comedies on television and rookie show Up All Night has been positively received as well. With Cougar Town’s move to TBS, no major network has more than two comedies that can compete with the critical approval that NBC’s line-up maintains (ABC has Modern Family and Happy Endings and CBS has How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory).
Despite the increasingly important presence of DVRs and websites such as Hulu, traditional ratings are the number one factor when it comes to a show’s chances at renewal. So even though Community has a strong cult following and is one of Hulu’s top shows, NBC does not know what to do with it. Community, 30 Rock, and Up All Night all received 13 episode orders for next season, nine below the traditional 22. Parks and Recreation and The Office received full orders, though many expect this to be The Office’s final year. Critically despised and ratings challenged rookie Whitney was also renewed by NBC, though the order count is unclear. 30 Rock is also ending after this season.
While it is certainly nice that NBC kept all its critically acclaimed comedies around, half orders practically ensure that the end is nigh for these shows. Half orders show NBC’s lack of confidence in these shows. It is possible that NBC could order a back nine for Up All Night and Community, but given that back nines are almost exclusively used for rookie shows it isn’t looking good. NBC has a full slate of comedies for next year and their success will likely play a factor as well.
If Community and Up All Night do not pick up their numbers, they are going to get cancelled. It does not matter how popular they are on Hulu or how many people TiVo them, their percent of the market share in the 18-49 demographic as well as total viewers are simply unacceptable for network television. Even on a last place network like NBC.
The problem is that Community is in its fourth season. Few shows see significant ratings spikes after being on the air for so long. Usually, the opposite happens. The Office was in a similar predicament after its first season and turned things around, but Community is headed into its fourth. We really cannot expect the same results, especially since Community lacks a major movie star like Steve Carrell. Carrell’s summer success with The 40 Year Old Virgin is often credited with The Office’s ratings spike for its second season. Up All Night and Community do not have that luxury, though actors like Donald Glover and Will Arnett have significant cult followings.
It is hard to fault NBC for renewing its comedy lineup, with the exception of Whitney, which should’ve been sacked. But this will likely be the last chance for Community and Up All Night. Unfortunately, all signs indicate that neither will succeed, though Community’s move to Fridays will alleviate some need for a ratings spike. Few shows see that kind of spike on Fridays though and this will be an uphill battle. Both shows could see pickups by a cable network but Up All Night lacks a significant cult following generally required to attract attention and Community will become increasingly more expensive as the contracts of stars like Joel McHale and Chevy Chase will skyrocket.
Shows that struggle to pull in four million viewers don’t last long on network television. Just because Community, Parks and Recreation, Up All Night, The Office, and Whitney all saw renewals does not mean that their futures are safe. It is unlikely that all of them will be cancelled in one swoop, but significant improvement is needed for them to see more than one or two more seasons.