Jeff Bader’s First Big Test: Fixing NBC’s Thursday Night

Tomorrow we’ll get a glimpse of NBC’s schedule for the 2014-15 season. It will mark the second NBC sched overseen by Jeff Bader since he was poached from ABC in August 2012. Last May, the changes he and his NBC bosses implemented were pretty subtle: creating a 9-11 PM genre block on Fridays, replacing the struggling Wednesday 8-9 PM comedy block with a drama (Revolution) and try dramas, Believe and Crisis, vs. reality series on Sundays in midseason after football. The first worked, the other two not so much, with all three drama series getting cancelled. Now NBC, assured to win the season in adults 18-49 with football, The Voice, hot freshman The Blacklist and some help from the Olympics, has to tackle heads-on the major problem that its Thursday lineup has become. While the network had been gradually losing positions on the night with its diminishing two-hour comedy block and a revolving door of reality and drama series at 10 PM, the problem became glaring this season, following the end of The Office which, even on its last legs, held the night together.

NBC didn’t make any changes in midseason, despite pulling in a 0.6-0.7 in 18-49 with comedy series like The Michael J.Fox Show. But it made the issue a priority. “Thursday night is a real challenge for us, something that we’re well aware of as we head into pilot season and start to think about the fall schedule next year,” NBC Chairman Bob Greenblatt said in January. “Comedy has proven to be very difficult for us.” NBC tried alternative comedy on the night with Hollywood Game Night, which did OK for the price but didn’t move the needle. The network is heading into fall with six comedy series that have 13-episode orders, enough for a two-hour block and a one-hour one, which is the current configuration on Tuesday and Thursday. But, after successfully rebuilding Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the network has to make a move on Thursday, and keeping the status quo with a two-hour comedy block against CBS’ comedies with no strong anchor to rival The Big Bang Theory is probably not going to cut it. NBC brass had already hinted at considering a drama-heavy fall lineup as they were particularly impressed by their drama development this year. Could drama play a larger role on the night once associated with NBC’s Must See TV comedy block?

Bader and the NBC higher-ups have a chance to make a bold Thursday move that could go in the annals of TV scheduling, like CBS’ decision to replace 48 Hour and City of Angels/Diagnosis Murder with the hot combo of Survivor and CSI, which stood up to NBC the way no one had been able in ages, and then replacing the aging Survivor with the red-hot The Big Bang Theory. Or ABC’s move of promising Sunday drama Grey’s Anatomy to the Thursday 9 PM slot. Or, despite being maligned as sacrilegious at the time, NBC’s successful experiment with The Apprentice in the Thursday 9 PM slot. Those were all out-of-the box moves that were often met with surprise and skepticism but ended up making scheduling history. NBC has a chance to write a new entry tomorrow.

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