Is NBC “Tanking” Its Thursday Night Comedies?

No news is good news when it comes to NBC comedies. Over the summer, the network elected to pull Community from its critically beloved, low-rated Thursday-night lineup. Stripped of its iconoclastic showrunner, Dan Harmon, the series would air an abbreviated 13-episode season on Fridays opposite Whitney. 30 Rock’s final year and Up All Night’s second would also be cut short. Earlier this month we learned that Community would not, in fact, return October 19th. And this week, we got two more bizarre pieces of news: Community Season 4 was set to debut on Canada’s Citytv November 9th (now the Citytv has pushed that date back indefinitely) and Up All Night is taking a hiatus from filming with plans to return as a multi-camera sitcom in April. Then, as if to remind us of how unimportant these shows are to the network, NBC announced it was bumping tonight’s Parks and Recreation, The Office, and Up All Night in order to re-run Monday’s episode of The Voice for those affected by Hurricane Sandy. (In case you missed it, 30 Rock‘s election episode aired last night at 8.)

Maybe we’ve been paying too much attention to Jack Donaghy, but all these sudden changes make us worry that NBC is “tanking” last year’s Thursday night lineup. As strategies for getting rid of shows with tiny but vocal fanbases, inconsistency and neglect seem gentler than sudden cancellation. So, will any of the shows make it through the 2012-13 season intact?

We know the current season will be the last for both The Office and 30 Rock. The latter’s ratings have dropped off drastically over the past few years; while the Season 3 premiere attracted 8.7 million viewers, that number was down to 3.5 million in 2012. The Office, which spent several years as Thursday night’s saving grace, has fallen even more dramatically. Aside from viewer attrition, both shows have struggled creatively of late. After losing Steve Carell at the end of Season 7, The Office still lacks a compelling focus. And, although this fall’s new episodes have been surprisingly strong, 30 Rock’s 2011-12 run suggested the show’s writers were running out of ideas.

The time has inarguably come for both series to end, but what does that mean for NBC Thursday nights? Although they may not be remotely as popular, in terms of their influence, 30 Rock and The Office are the Seinfeld and Friends of post-Must-See-TV Thursdays. They set the parameters for each and every other comedy that’s survived more than a season on the lineup: smart, single-camera sitcoms whose tone is either sweet like The Office’s (Parks and Recreation, Up All Night) or cutting like that of 30 Rock (Community). And the newest wave of updates says a lot about which of these two types of shows NBC is betting on for the long haul.

The history of The Office vs. 30 Rock — as well as the massive success of ABC’s Modern Family — suggests that post-Seinfeld America prefers nice over nasty and goofiness over satire. That should explain why Parks and Recreation, still depressingly low-rated despite the bighearted show’s seemingly limitless appeal, was the only Thursday-night show NBC renewed for a full 22-episode season. It also sheds some light on why the network is trying out a multi-camera format for Up All Night. In announcing the move, NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt told Variety, “We know what the multi-camera audience does for the live episodes of 30 Rock, plus after seeing both Maya and Christina do SNL within the past few months, we knew we had the kind of performers — Will Arnett included — who love the reaction from a live audience.” But here’s the big take-home: “[W]e’re committed to the multi-camera form, and this will give us another show to consider for next season in this new format.” In other words, they’re going after CBS comedies’ audience by re-imagining a theoretically mainstream-friendly sitcom about new parents in a format that is more appealing to those viewers.

As for Community, the conflicting reports and scheduling woes speak for themselves. By ousting Harmon, Sony and Universal seemed to be attempting to curb the show’s wilder and more satiric tendencies to bring it in line with NBC’s new populist program. And yet, the network still doesn’t appear to be entirely convinced it’s worth saving. It was worrisome, at first, that NBC seemed fine with letting Season 4 debut on Citytv — as many pointed out, Community has a young, tech-savvy, and obsessive audience that would be likely to download those episodes before they aired in the US. Our fears were partially assuaged by Tuesday afternoon, when Citytv had changed its story twice, pushing the premiere to January 11th before giving up and admitting, “No date has yet been set for the return of Community.” Following these hiccups came a tweet from Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley on the show: “Guys, #Community officially has an airdate: Thursday, February 7th at 8pm!” The quick response to Citytv implies that NBC hasn’t entirely surrendered Community’s future, and it’s nice to see it back on Thursdays, but that still puts it up against CBS’ hugely popular The Big Bang Theory — a show whose audience may well overlap with Community’s. In any case, it doesn’t seem alarmist to fret over the haphazardness with which these arrangements are being made.

NBC isn’t so much “tanking” its Thursday-night comedies as pushing them into a new era, it seems. The less edgy shows look like safer bets for the fall 2013 lineup, if only because they fit with the network’s latest strategy. But it’s hard to see the multi-cam format as an automatic solution when The Office and, more recently, Modern Family and Fox’s New Girl have had no trouble flourishing as single-camera comedies. And while I’m happy to have Parks and Rec especially around for as long as possible, the fact that its ratings aren’t significantly higher than 30 Rock’s this year suggests that it will take more than just an upbeat tone to make NBC comedies into mainstream hits.