After the ratings glory from its Winter Olympics coverage ends next week — beating American Idol head-to-head on Wednesday Feb. 17, something no other network has been able to do for six years — NBC will come schussing out of the gate in March and head straight downhill.
The programming geniuses who thought Jay Leno in prime time was an inspired idea will come out of the Olympic break with Jerry Seinfeld as a marriage counselor (The Marriage Ref, premiering at 10 p.m. Thursday, March 4, after a "sneak preview" this Sunday following the games' closing ceremony); Phoebe Buffay's wacky look at the relatives of celebrities (Who Do You Think You Are?, executive-produced by Lisa Kudrow, bowing at 8 p.m. Friday, March 5); and a celebrity chef, Guy Fieri, as host of a prime-time game show (Minute to Win It, debuting at 8 p.m. Sunday, March 14). Who comes up with these ideas? Who approves them?
Then there's the gold standard of NBC's post-Olympics offerings, Parenthood, the one-hour drama from Oscar-winning executive producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer premiering at 10 p.m. next Tuesday. It boasts a sprawling ensemble cast with faces you're certain to recognize (Bonnie Bedelia, Craig T. Nelson, Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls, Erika Christensen), but faces a triple-whammy of drawbacks right out of the gate: Avoiding comparisons to Howard and Grazer's classic 1989 movie of the same name that had people like Steve Martin and Keanu Reeves in it, or the short-lived 1990 NBC spin-off series that followed it (starring Leonardo DiCaprio, for gosh sakes), and pulling viewers who already appear to be quite pleased with a multigenerational family show on another network, Modern Family, ABC's buzzy hit of the season.
Grazer and Howard surely know drama, and as they proved with Arrested Development, they know their way around TV comedy too. But despite the passage of time and the talents involved, is any premise solid enough to be made into two separate TV series 20 years apart? Is Parenthood Exhibit A for the dearth of fresh ideas in Hollywood, or the level of NBC's desperation? Or both?
Since Leno's meltdown at 10 p.m. and return to The Tonight Show left them with no new series besides Parenthood and The Marriage Ref ready to plug into that hour and nothing immediately available in the development pipeline, NBC is being forced to scramble. Law & Order, the enduring original cops-and-court franchise that was the subject of cancellation discussions not long ago, instead returns for its landmark 20th season with a two-hour episode at 9 p.m. Monday before settling into its new time slot at 10 p.m. Mondays on March 8. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, with the thorny contractual issues of its stars Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay settled for at least the next two years, moves to 10 p.m. Wednesdays next week, preceded by rerun SVU episodes at 9. They're also scheduling "encore episodes" of SVU at 10 p.m. Saturdays. Good thing that's such a luridly watchable show! And to think, they let a breakthrough police drama like Southland just walk away to TNT.
And what of Heroes, NBC's sci-fi superhero romp whose fortunes have undergone more ups and downs than RenCen elevators? A measly 4.4 million viewers tuned in earlier this month to learn the fates of Hiro, Claire and Sylar in what ostensibly could have been the series finale. Even Leno was doing better. But while the show's ratings have continually plummeted here, Heroes does exceptionally well overseas. If NBC does decide to let the show return for a fifth season, it may be only as an "event miniseries" or a limited run of episodes to tie up its loose ends.
What's more, audiences have not warmed to either of the network's first-year medical dramas, the nurse-driven Mercy at 8 p.m. Wednesdays or the expensive-to-produce Trauma returning to the lineup at 9 p.m. Mondays on March 8. If ratings for both shows don't improve dramatically this spring, expect them to be flatlining by summer. NBC simply needs stronger returning programs to re-energize its flailing prime-time schedule.
Note that one of NBC's most popular shows is called The Biggest Loser, airing at 8 p.m. Tuesdays and repeated at 8 p.m. Saturdays. There will be no comments here about irony.
Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
And speaking of shows in trouble: Could 24 be running out of time? It's possible. The pulse-pounding action hour remains one of FOX's franchise hits, but it's in its eighth season and star Kiefer Sutherland's contract runs out after this year. Jack Bauer don't come cheap. Producers could re-sign Sutherland at major bucks for one year -— a gamble for any series this long in the tooth — or end the show in May and let 24 migrate to a big-screen, Mission: Impossible-type movie franchise. Tick, tock, FOX.