Community – A Story in Five Seasons
Community! – A Story in Five Seasons
The question people are going to eventually ask is, "How did Community last this long and make this many episodes?" It has reached a point long surpassing almost any other cult hit, even in the diminished expectations of modern television. The true story of Community has little to do with ratings, and much to do with a NBC both in free-fall and constant flux.
Community premiered in 2009 to modest, but decent ratings. It generally tracked the ups and downs of NBC's ratings, often equaling Parks and Recreation. And, even towards the end of the season was on a bit of an uptick (the nadir was in April when it got a 1.6, but rose to close the season out with a solid 2.0). But the real story is in what was happening with the network on the business side. In July of 2009, Jeff Gaspin was promoted to the Chairman of NBC. By July the Upfronts already happened, and the schedule largely set, which left Gaspin with relatively little to do creatively, other than shepherd along the shows approved by former NBC Chairman Ben Silverman (who himself was merely the last in a long line of very brief tenures as NBC Chairman). One of those shows was Community.
Meanwhile, NBC's ratings had been declining for most of the decade. They had fallen far from the heyday of "Must See TV." General Electric was looking to sell, and found a buyer in Comcast. Much of the first half of the 2009-2010 season was spent in negotiations between the two companies, until the sale was finalized in December of 2009. CEO of Comcast Steve Burke hated Jeff Gaspin for both personal and practical reasons. Which prompted Gaspin to resign in November of 2010, lest he be fired.
With all the fluctuations at NBC on the corporate level, it became very conservative on a programming level. No one really knew how the sale was going to shake out, so even though 12 new shows were ordered, much of the schedule was left in place. Only giant holes were filled, such as the hole left by a forced hiatus on Parks and Recreation due to Amy Poehler's pregnancy. The cast and crew of Parks and Recreation had worked over the summer to have 6 episodes ready for the upcoming season, but the confidence on the network side was just not there, leaving it to be held until midseason. It was replaced with Outsourced, which was supposed to die over 13-episodes, but wound up being mildly popular, leaving NBC in the odd situation of having 5 shows for two hours. NBC decided to expand into the 10 pm spot with Outsourced and 30 Rock (it didn't really have much else to program there anyway) and then cycle through Perfect Couples and The Paul Reiser Show at 8:30. But mostly everyone seemed content to just let the 2010-2011 season occur without much interference. But that minimalist approach was disastrous a NBC suffered a ratings free fall that year. The sole bright spot was the premiere of The Voice which was more or less hastily put together over the course of the year, rather than planned at the beginning. It didn't even premiere until April 25, 2011. Like both Survivor and American Idol before it, what was meant to be a cheap summer event wound up being a humongous smash.
In November of 2010, Robert Greenblatt was brought over to replace Gaspin. By the end of the year, he had so many problems that he simply focused on protectingThe Voice and trying to build a tentpole night, hence all his effort and energy went into Smash. Community was helped out by the fact that so many shows from the 2010-2011 season were ahead of it on the chopping block, including basically all of Wednesday, and (temporarily, mind you) 30 Rock. Tina Fey was pregnant, resulting in the 6th season of 30 Rock being held off to midseason. Whitney was brought onto the schedule as a replacement in order to die the quick death thatOutsourced was supposed to. Of course it did not. Surprising everyone, Wednesday began to look a little brighter. Up All Night was one of two sitcoms scheduled in the vast wasteland of Wednesday that was left after 2010-2011, and it was something of a hit. Greenblatt went into protection mode with the show and decided to place it after The Office. His thought process seemed to be if both Outsourced and Whitneycould thrive there, then so could Up All Night. Whitney was moved to Wednesday to pair with Are You There, Chelsea?, and a bunch of other things that seemed to just be NBC throwing things at a wall and hoping they'd stick.
This left NBC once more in the position of having 5 shows to fill two hours. Across the scheduling map, CBS had sensed weakness. In 2009-2010, CBS aired the veteran reality show Survivor, which is where it had been for years. It was something of a counterpoint as most of the networks aired various kinds of comedies on Thursday. Survivor was popular, but no juggernaut any more. CBS had carefully crafted a Monday night out of its popular shows Two and a Half Menand How I Met Your Mother. Newer show The Big Bang Theory was starting to look like a monster hit, and so CBS took a chance and scheduled it Thursday at 8:30. By the 2011-2012 season, Community had been fighting to live against The Big Bang Theory for a season and a half, and it showed in the ratings. NBC pulled it from the schedule to bring back 30 Rock. It was weakest rated, and the only regular Thursday show other than The Office not to be pulled in the past few seasons. 30 Rock became a ratings disaster. For most of 30 Rock's life, it had aired in the protective post-The Office spot, the only traditional hit NBC had at the time. Starting the night off against The Big Bang Theory utterly destroyed it. Meanwhile, on the other side of the schedule, Up All Night also became a ratings disaster. Greenblatt et al. failed to realize that Outsourced and Whitney were fall premiers, not midseason premiers, and that Up All Night did not fit into the tone or themes of its Thursday. Up All Night was a quiet family comedy, while everything else on NBC that night was a boisterous work comedy. NBC burned off the episodes, and replaced it with 30 Rock, bringing Community back to its original spot, taking the ratings hit from The Big Bang Theory.
In the 2012-2013 season, Community was in a difficult position for Greenblatt. It was too close to syndication to get rid of, but not really something he liked. After a disastrous 2011-2012 season, 30 Rock was dead, however it was given a final 13 episode run to conclude its story, and as a gesture of good will towards Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, as well as more episodes for syndication. Really 2012-2013 was a season where Greenblatt hedged his bets. Only The Office and Parks and Recreation received full season pick-ups. Everyone else got 13 episodes with the option of more. Across the schedule, Greenblatt had canceled 14 shows from 2011-2012. Once again Community was helped out by its value as potential syndication and just how many shows were ahead of it in the cancellation line. It was during this period that Dan Harmon was fired. Everyone at both NBC and Sony seemed to want Community to run out the clock, hit syndication and then go away. Which was not something Harmon would allow. No one seemed to understand Community, nor did they seem to want to understand it. It was just an aggressively loud show with an aggressive and hostile show runner. Sony replaced him either at the behest of NBC or as a gift to the network.
In 2012-2013, NBC bet big on comedy. They opened comedy blocks on Wednesday (Animal Practice and Guys With Kids) and Tuesday (Go On and The New Normal), in addition to their Thursday night. The original Thursday night line-up was 30 Rock, Up All Night, The Office and ending with Parks and Recreation. Tuesday pulled incredibly strong ratings. Wednesday died a quiet death, and the first hour of Thursday was abysmal. That didn't matter to 30 Rock, which was ending anyway, but killed the fourth or sixth incarnation of Up All Night. 30 Rockended, Up All Night limped to closure, and Community came back. Communityreplaced 30 Rock, while Parks and Recreation was moved to 8:30. Meanwhile, Tuesday saw a ratings collapse. Go On and The New Normal were only hits thanks to overflow from The Voice, the moment that protection ended (which it did prior to the end of fall), they plummeted to woefully small numbers. Go On, being the more valuable of the pair, was moved to Thursday where, for a change, there were only 3 shows, The New Normal was left to die on a The Voice-less Tuesday.
Community had a bumpy 2013 season. Without Dan Harmon the show lost its critical acclaim, as well going over budget. However NBC had developed so many problem areas, as well as Community being so relatively valuable (with 84 episodes, and several syndication deals), that the show (just barely) survived yet another round of cullings. Ones which took away almost everything Greenblatt had tried over the year. Dan Harmon was rehired, mostly to appease the actors, and Community has seemed to become the property that NBC is now treating with a laissez faire attitude. It will inevitably take its old place at 8:00. It might even survive yet another round of cullings as NBC has 14 new shows, very few of which seem more likely to survive than the shows of the last two seasons.
Why Community survived? A very lucky combination of a network having a constantly in flux corporate structure with an across the board ratings freefall.