There was a time, not so long ago, that NBC was the top network on TV. You don’t even have to go back as far as the halcyon days of “Must See TV” when “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” ruled Thursday nights in order to find NBC perched atop the weekly ratings game. But, oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Following the loss of “Friends,” NBC began an unprecedented tumble from the top spot, going from first to last in less than two seasons. This month (week of April 9-15), NBC had the indistinct honor of recording its worst week during a regular season since Nielsen’s “People Meters” were introduced 20 years ago. The week may very well have been the network’s worst showing ever, with an average of only 6.8 million viewers during the prime-time hours. To put that in perspective, a Friday night broadcast of “SpongeBob SquarePants” on Nickelodeon that week pulled in 5.9 million viewers.
Not a single NBC show was able to crack the top 20 that week. In fact, a Monday night broadcast of the Howie Mandel gameshow “Deal or No Deal” was the only NBC show to draw more than 10 million viewers. Even NBC’s onetime chart-topper “ER” barely cracked the top 30 with its lowest viewership, a mere 9.2 million.
So what the hell happened to NBC? Sadly, when “Friends”—the final brick in the network’s “Must See TV” lineup—fell, the other networks sensed weakness and swooped in with some of their best shows. CBS offered up “Survivor” and “CSI.” ABC countered with “Ugly Betty” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Despite having their finest Thursday lineup in years (“My Name is Earl,” “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Scrubs”), NBC is getting trounced by the competition. On April 12, the Peacock Network drew only 7.1 million viewers, its lowest Thursday ever for all-original programming.
Unable to hold viewers on Thursdays, the network has had a devil of a time luring viewers to its other nights. NBC’s entertaining new improv series “Thank God You’re Here,” for example, was only able to draw 8.2 million viewers in its debut—and that was only due to the strength of its “Deal or No Deal” lead-in.
NBC also made the same mistake ABC did in pulling “Lost” off the air. The network feared that reruns would kill off its one new hit, the Monday night drama “Heroes.” Unfortunately, an extended hiatus filled with forgettable filler caused viewers to scatter to other networks. Hopefully, the steam hasn’t gone out of “Heroes,” which returned to the air this week for its final five episodes. (It certainly did for “Lost,” which has shed more than 17 percent of its viewers from last season.)
NBC’s final problem is a lesson learned from Darwin (or was it Merrill Lynch?): Diversify or die. Of the 22 shows on NBC’s current prime-time schedule, a full 30 percent are either “Law & Order” shows or “Dateline NBC” shows. It seems the network doesn’t have a programming department so much as a cloning department. Get some shows on the air, NBC. And quick! You know you’re in serious trouble when Howie Mandel is your biggest star.