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The Mystery Behind NBC and The Most Resilient Show on Network Television, 'Community'

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | January 2, 2014 | Comments ()


community-nbc-fifth-seaosn.jpg

Community is set to return tonight with back-to-back episodes over on NBC. It’s been a long and bumpy ride for the sitcom as it heads into its improbable fifth season, and though six-seasons-and-a-movie has been a rallying cry for the sitcom since the end of season three, that prospect until recently always felt impossibly remote and unrealistic. The series has never been a ratings-getter, debuting in 2009 with a decent-sized audience of 7.5 million, but quickly falling to around 5 million viewers by its second episode, a number that would’ve got it cancelled on any other network during any other previous era by midseason.

But this was NBC, an already struggling network since the end of “Friends” and “ER,” the writer’s strike the year before, and a risky gambit that didn’t pay off in 2009: After installing Conan O’Brien as The Tonight Show host, they plugged Jay Leno in at the 10:00 hour Monday through Friday, cratering their entire network schedule and setting back their recovery by years. With low ratings across the board (their highest rated program besides Sunday Night Football was The Biggest Loser), NBC had no choice but to nurse along the shows it had with small but passionate audiences. Thanks to NBC’s mismanagement, we were allowed five seasons of the low-rated Friday Night Lights (with an assist from DirectTV), the continuation of Parks and Recreation, the renewal of Parenthood, the annual resurrection of Chuck, and more seasons of 30 Rock than a show with similar ratings would’ve have fetched on any other network.

In a way, we can thank the incompetence of that hapless bozo Jeff Zucker for the extended runs of some of our favorite television series.

Still, even among the network’s lowest rated shows, Community shouldn’t have survived. Its ratings have continued to erode, hitting a low last season of 2.33 million viewers. Compare that to the 4 million viewers that the perpetually struggling Friday Night Lights received in 2009, when it was the 104th highest rated show on network television. In fact, last year Community ranked 123rd overall in the ratings, and was the lowest rated show on the Big Four to get renewed. And yet, it did get renewed.

Why would NBC continue to keep Community around despite its abysmal ratings? Despite the public-relations nightmare that ousting Dan Harmon brought? Despite the negative press that Harmon and Chevy Chase continue to bring to the network, even as the overall plight of NBC has improved (it was the number one network of the fall, thanks to football, The Voice, and The Blacklist).

The answer, obviously, is syndication. But that’s not as clear-cut an answer as you’d think. What is the upside of a season five? The series is already in syndication, but to get that lucrative syndication deal, it needs 16 more episodes to bring it to 100 (the fifth season renewal brings it to 97 episodes). But even still, Community is not faring particularly well in syndication now. Not including its cable run, syndication ratings for Community (not including Comedy Central) are in the .3 to .4 range, compared to Big Bang Theory’s 6.5 (reruns of The Big Bang Theory fetch three times more viewers than first-runs of Community), a 4.6 for Modern Family and a 1.7 for The Middle. Given the current ratings, even with 100 episodes, there probably won’t be a long-run for the sitcom, even in syndication.

And yet, Community survives, debuting tonight, January 2nd, the first new scripted program to return this year, with no lead-in, with little advertising (NBC even wrongly promoted the show, touting the return of “The Greenville Gang” (it’s GREENDALE), and before television viewers have re-gained their post-holiday bearings (the fact that 100 million people are expected to be affected by snowfall likely will not help matters). The passionate base, of course, will still be there (all 2 million of us), and some may return to see how Dan Harmon transforms the snow after a lost four season.

But don’t expect a noticeable ratings-upswing for the series over the long-term. It’s paired with the already struggling Parks and Recreation and the ratings for the rest of NBC’s Thursday night line-up (Sean Saves the World, The Michael J. Fox Show) are laughable, all of which would suggest that Community doesn’t have a chance in hell of a sixth season, as NBC will presumably turn to repairing its Thursday night lineup next year after solidifying the other nights on its schedule. And yet, it’s impossible to count Community out. It is unbelievably resilient, and you never know about NBC: It may decide to give the smattering of fans remaining its six seasons if only because it will give the network a tiny PR boost, even if the executives (and certainly the marketing department) has little idea about what Community is really about. NBC has treated the sitcom poorly for five years, but they deserve at least a little credit for keeping it around and for coming to their senses in bringing back Dan Harmon.

Community

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • puppetDoug

    I think Community is like a paid experiment in delayed viewing. No one who is watching this show is not making their own TV appointments. If they had allowed it on Netflix, its ratings would have boosted, but they instead made it hulu exclusive. NBC owns hulu, so it's getting a pretty exact count on how many people are watching this one show. Not only is it probably making up for its lack of ratings in delayed viewership (not entirely, just more than any other show makes up for it), but it has consistently been the ONLY SHOW getting this much internet press on their network. Good or bad, no one talks about NBC anymore except their handling of Community. That might be worth it right there.

  • Alright, I'll come back. Let's see if there's any of that old magic left. I still feel all warm and nostalgic over seasons 1-3, so let's give this another shot. But I better not end up reacting like McHale in that header pic there.

  • Uriah_Creep

    Isn't that just Thursday night at the Pig's house?

  • /Friday morning

  • Uriah_Creep

    My mistake. I was confused by the time difference.

  • Lajos László Viktor

    Last season was bad, but the series is much better than most of the current network TV sitcoms. Parks and Rec., Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Modern Family are the best, but Community is close to them.

  • Green_Eggs_and_Hamster

    (reruns of The Big Bang Theory fetch three times more viewers than first-runs of Community)

    I just don't understand this, and it makes me sad. And I even watch Big Bang, and don't hate it most of the time, though the way it treats the characters occasionally makes me wonder why I watch it. But how a repeat of such an insipid show gets so many more viewers than Community, which I think is self-evidently better makes me wonder just how outside of the mainstream I actually am.

  • googergieger

    Backgroud noise.

  • xhikari

    I've stopped watching Big Bang quite recently, the characters are drawn out more and more pathetically with each passing season and I've had it with the latest season. I could treat it as a regular sitcom but in that light, I might as well waste time watching Two and a Half Men.

  • I still watch Big Bang for some reason too. Though I caught the one where Penny mocks Buffy for being "backward" and that might be enough to get me to stop.

    Anyway, I think Big Bang is so popular because it combines familiar sitcom tropes with a unique (I guess) premise. The jokes and situations are very stereotypical, which is why the mainstream likes it. But the geek aspect ads enough to get people like us watching. Early on, Leonard and Sheldon (Leonard more so) were identifiable and unique. Now they're standard sitcom characters with a few geeky lines thrown in.

    Community basically mocks the Big Bang and standard sitcom formula. Or at least when they aren't mocking it or making a meta point about it, they're doing it in a different way that most people either don't get or aren't trained to watch in a way that they can get it.

  • Some Guy

    I think people watch Big Bang more because of the illusion of intelligence that surrounds the show since all the characters are physicists and there's a lot of technical jargon being thrown around.

  • Afferbeck

    Is all this rating stuff still calculated using that old nielsen box nonsense? Does anybody even know anybody that has one?

  • Some Guy

    They contacted my mother a few months ago to take part in it. Sent us a gift basket and everything. We decided not to, though, because they had to send someone over to install the device, and then it apparently made it take even longer to change the channel, so she opted against doing it. We kept the basket, even though the candy was stale.

    As a long time TV viewer, I, for one, felt honored that they sought out our family.

  • Guest

    The Mystery Behind NBC and The Most Resilient Show on Network Television, 'Community'?

    Two Words: Joel McHale. NBC loves him (and they should) and want him to be a star (future late night host spot?). How else can you explain him getting NBC to rehire Dan Harmon for a fifth season (let alone giving the show a fifth season)? And he has called out and mocked NBC on many occasions for how they've handled and promoted the show with no backlash.

    Since the show has already been sold into syndication there was no reason for NBC to keep it going other than keeping McHale happy. It certainly wasn't done for us (it's fans).

    That or McHale has some sweet dirty laundry on NBC that they never want to see the light of day.

  • John W

    Zucker will now take his anti Midas skills to the struggling CNN...

  • jM

    This show. I was so ready to give up on it. Now, I feel like it's back out of the blue having cleaned itself up (bringing back Harmon), excised its demons (Chevy Chase), but losing a bit of that sparkle that made it great (Troy) and I just can't quit it.

  • lowercase_ryan

    The fifth season will happen completely in Abed's mind. In the beginning of the last episode he will wake up in the Dreamatorium with the gang. Then in the last scene we see that the Dreamatorium is just his room in a mental hospital and he's alone. And the series ends like that.

    the darkest timeline.

  • phase10

    I don't mean this in a snarky way(or maybe I do), but what's so magical about a 6th season? Isn't it better for a series to go out in the natural course? Preferably at or around it's zenith.

  • Guest

    See:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

    Said show being "The Cape".

    #sixseasonsandamovie

  • echto

    Its a joke from the show.

  • phase10

    That's incredible. It's so saturated that I feel like I've heard that about other shows as well.

  • greg

    a joke referring to The Cape

  • I'd expect Abed to have a good answer, derived from analyzing a wide range of shows and determining an average season in which they should have ended, and complete with examples of shows that went on for too long and those that ended at the right time.

    That or #SixSeasonsAndAMovie just sounds better than #LetsEndItOnTheNaturalCourse

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