NBC has made big bets this season on Broadway and broad comedy, and neither has paid off so far. But one bold gamble still might.
No, we're not talking about late night — where the network is in another dispute over removing Jay Leno from the "Tonight Show." We're talking about primetime, where the network faces a major test this spring.
The network's most inspired tactic in recent years has been positioning shows when and where audiences least expect hits — and then outperforming expectations.
NBC may now be in a position to do it again, with help from some returning winners and America's favorite cannibal psychologist. There could even be the slightest of hopes for the doomed-looking "Smash," a favorite of NBC entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt.
Greenblatt has been criticized for saying NBC wants broad new sitcoms rather than the Thursday night shows that for years have earned more respect than ratings. The broad shows, it turns out, aren't scoring either.
But few have noted NBC's other big move this season: trying to bring Broadway to the rest of America. Besides granting "Smash" a second season, the network gave sitcoms to each of the leads of the Tony-winning hit, "The Book of Mormon."
That hasn't worked especially well, either.
"New Normal," with "Mormon" star Andrew Rannells, is averaging a just-adequate 2.1 rating in the key 18-49 demo. Meanwhile, "1600 Penn," with Rannells' "Mormon" co-star, Josh Gad, has a dismal 1.5.
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That's the same rating "Animal Practice," the broadest NBC comedy of the season, had before it was canceled.
"Smash," which also has a 1.5, has been relegated to Saturday, the lowest-rated night for television. Networks often use Saturday nights as a place to burn off episodes of soon-to-be-canceled shows.
And things had been going so well for NBC: Last season, it slightly edged out ABC for third place in the demo, after years of languishing in fourth. It was especially good news for Greenblatt, because it was the first full season he was in charge.
In the fall, NBC shocked its rivals by finishing first in the demo. (CBS, which has an older audience, still led in total viewers, as it has for years.)
As NBC won its first November sweeps in nine years, Greenblatt tried to lower expectations, saying he didn't expect to finish the season on top.
"I'd be astonished if we ended up to be No. 1," he told TheWrap at the time. "But I'd be thrilled if we landed at two, and I'd be really, really pleased if we were just in third place. … I feel pretty confident that we are not going to end up in fourth place again."
NBC has since slipped to third place. But Greenblatt doesn't seem pleased at all.
Last week, the New York Times reported that he complained to Jay Leno about mocking NBC's ratings on the "Tonight Show," which led to a pointed back-and-forth with the host. At least some of the tensions come from the news that NBC is planning to replace Leno with Jimmy Fallon.
Comedians, like Leno, try to open and finish strong. And that's what NBC hopes to do, too.
It owed its fall success especially to "Sunday Night Football," "The Voice" and "Revolution." This season and last, "SNF" has emerged as television's highest-rated show overall, a position "American Idol" held the previous eight years.
NBC used "The Voice," which became a surprise hit two years ago, to launch "Revolution" to become broadcast television's highest-rated new show and drama this season. ("The Walking Dead," airing on AMC, is the top drama on all of television.)
CBS and Fox surpassed NBC this winter thanks in part to CBS airing the Super Bowl, and the return of Fox's weakened "Idol."
But this is where NBC hopes things will get good again.
The network previously found a hit at an unlikely time on April 26, 2011, when "The Voice" emerged from nowhere. (Actually it was The Netherlands – the show is based on a Dutch format.)
As Fox worked on "X Factor," its long-gestating "Idol" offshoot, NBC developed "The Voice" in a few months and hurried it to air at a time when its broadcast rivals had already debuted most of their 2010-11 shows. "The Voice" was an instant hit.
NBC brought back "The Voice" the following spring, and then again this past fall, giving the time slot after it to "Revolution."
Now, NBC is debuting a spring edition of "The Voice" with a slightly different cast.
It's a risky move, because viewers seem to be losing their affection for sing-offs: "The Voice," "Idol" and "X Factor" have all slipped in the ratings this season.
Last year, when it fell behind "SNF," "Idol" earned a 6.3 demo rating for its more popular Wednesday edition. This season, it is down to a 5.4, as of last week.
Fox's Wednesday "X Factor" has similarly dropped from a 4.4 last season to a 3.6 this time out, and "The Voice" on Mondays has fallen from a 6.2 last year to a 5.2 in the fall.
But timing may be on NBC's side.
Fox sprung its revamped "Idol" — with new judges Mariah Carey, Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj — in January, when plenty of shows were returning or having mid-season premieres.
But NBC won't premiere the next cycle of "The Voice" — with new judges Shakira and Usher — until Monday. And when it comes back, it will again be followed by its fall partner, "Revolution."
Cable shows like "Game of Thrones" and "Mad Men" are also returning, but broadcast networks have already fired most of their best shots. So "The Voice" and its new judges may again steal viewers' attention, just as they did in 2011.
And NBC has another show that may have some teeth. "Hannibal," inspired by Thomas Harris' "Silence of the Lambs" villain, debuts April 4. The buzz is good — and the show arrives when other networks lack anything similarly bold. (Fox's "The Following," obviously influenced by "Silence," debuted in January and has earned decent ratings.)
"Hannibal" is certainly in for a struggle. An NBC adaptation of the film and novel "The Firm" fell flat last year.
And many promising dramas have died in the Thursdays-at-10 timeslot for "Hannibal," including "Prime Suspect," "Awake" and "Do No Harm." That lowers expectations a bit.
But NBC has a knack for finding success where others haven't. "Grimm" has succeeded on Fridays, the worst night for TV besides Saturdays.
And you can't even count Saturdays out for NBC.
Last week, the Justin Timberlake-hosted "Saturday Night Live" scored a 3.4 rating — NBC's best in the demo for this calendar year. That was both a testament to Timberlake's star power, and NBC's bad luck in primetime.
But it also proved that sometimes shows can thrive in the unlikeliest of places. NBC's dream now is that maybe "Smash" can find a Saturday audience, too.
If it does, it will be the kind of tale that inspires Broadway musicals.