We all saw this coming for a long time: it's the end of an era for NBC's must-see Thursday nights of comedy. Last night, the network saw the worst in-season Thursday ratings since Friends went off the air in 2002, hammering the proverbial nail in its coffin. With the exception of Parks and Recreation's lower-than-average ratings, the NBC lineup's abject failure can be attributed to its three new series, Welcome to the Family, Sean Saves the World, and The Michael J. Fox Show.
Much has been written about why NBC failed so miserably. Some critics have argued that the night was brutal for NBC because of the combination of the Cory Monteith Glee tribute and Thursday Night Football, and others have blamed the new series themselves. Admittedly, Welcome to the Family is sad, boring, and sure to be cancelled, and Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show both belong in the 1990s; but, the fault nevertheless lies with NBC.
The network's very public decision to air programming with a broader appeal has been its downfall. 30 Rock and The Office did struggle with ratings, but they both retained a core audience base, influenced pop culture, garnered critical acclaim, and created a fan community that supported them outside of a traditional broadcast setting. It wasn't that the niche comedy programming completely failed the network; it was that it worked differently than more mainstream fare like Friends and Will & Grace that resonated with audiences during NBC's heyday.
As platforms and devices become more personal and customizable, niche will only grow in popularity. Take comedies like The League or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. They don't command the highest ratings on television or own the most prominent spots on the weekly lineup, yet when they moved from FX to FXX they continued to succeed. They know their audiences and cater to them, using their critical clout and cultish following to acquire more engaged viewers.
Even the other major networks understand the power of niche. CBS reigns with The Big Bang Theory, which while it seems as mainstream as television can come because of its unbelievable popularity, started out with niche appeal. It was for nerds, geeks, and everyone who in some way aligned themselves with those groups. It just so happened that by targeting a niche market and making a very specific kind of show, it ended up reaching a huge audience.
Now it seems like the up-and-coming FOX Tuesdays are becoming the storied NBC must-see Thursdays. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Mindy Project, and New Girl aggressively pursue a younger demographic divorced from the family-friendly format NBC believes possesses the broadest appeal.
Based on NBC's track record with mainstream comedies, it looks like they'll either continue to produce disappointing dribble that appeals to no one because it so desperately tries to appeal to everyone, or they'll drop comedy completely from their in-season lineup. It's too bad – NBC could have stayed great if it had just learned to embrace what it was already good at: producing quality content that privileged dedicated fans.