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Next fall, NBC will air The Biggest Loser to its Thursday night lineup, giving it the 8 PM slot. Once football season ends, the network will put its only true hit from this season, The Blacklist, at the 9 PM slot on Thursday. Why is any of that news? Because it means that for one of the few times since 1983, NBC will not air a block of sitcoms during the 8 – 10 PM timeslots.
NBC’s Thursday nights has been the home to some of the biggest hits and most influential sitcoms in history, and while the network’s programming strategy might make business sense it’s hard not to feel a little sad at the end of what became one of the medium’s few constants.
The Peacock first experimented with the idea of grouping sitcoms on Thursday during the 1983 – 84 season with a rotation of shows that included fare like Gimme a Break and We Got It Made… but it also included a pair of building blocks that would provide the basis for what was to come.
The following season in 1984, NBC debuted its first classic lineup on Thursdays with holdovers Cheers and Family Ties, paired with The Cosby Show and Night Court. The formula of two smart family sitcoms during the 8 – 9 PM hour and then two slightly more adult oriented sitcoms between 9 – 10 PM wasn’t new — CBS did the same thing throughout much of the ’70s — but the quality of the four shows was so good that it was hard for the grouping not to standout.
NBC’s success on Thursdays — particularly with The Cosby Show, which at its peak was averaging nearly 30 million viewers a week — propelled the network to its first standalone win in the season ratings since Nielsen started keeping track in 1960.Cheers and The Cosby Show anchored the night for the rest of the decade until a little show about nothing came along to keep the ball rolling.
In its early days, Seinfeld bounced around the NBC schedule in search of a home, sometimes airing after Cheers. When the Ted Danson sitcom finally ended in 1993, however, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s creation was ready to take over.
Seinfeld and Friends
Seinfeld, Mad About You, and starting in 1994, Friends became “Must See TV.” For most of the next decade, Friends and Seinfeld were such strong ratings winners that they could carry a variety of weaker shows (Caroline in the City, Suddenly Susan, Veronica’s Closet, etc.) that followed them. The pair of New York-based sitcoms became so iconic that Friends generated a fashion sensation as women rushed to have their hair styled like Rachel and Seinfeld fans quoted the show so much that phrases like “Master of your domain” and “No soup for you!” became part of the cultural lexicon.
When Seinfeld called it quits, the Cheers spinoff Frasier moved back to Thursday to stabilize the night for a couple of seasons until suitable replacement could be found. NBC found that replacement when it turned to a show about a group of friends far different from Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry and company: as Friends started to wind-down, the night became the domain of Will & Grace. The sitcom about a gay man and his female best friend (Eric McCormack and Debra Messing), along with their two flakey cohorts (Sean Hayes and Megan Mullally), provided the network with another hit to build around.
Beginning of the End
When Friends came to a close, NBC’s Thursday lineup went through a period of flux. The first signs of trouble began when Scrubs had difficulty finding a larger audience, despite being well received by critics. With ratings dropping, The Apprentice spent time in the 9 PM Thursday slot, as did Deal or No Deal.
The comedy lineup reemerged, however, in 2007 when Tina Fey’s 30 Rock joined The Office, My Name Is Earl and Scrubs to form one more stellar block of sitcoms. By 2009, Community and Parks and Recreation had joined The Office and 30 Rock, but as smartly written as the group was, ratings never quite rebounded fully.
By this past season, when only Community and Parks remained and were grouped with the now canceled Welcome to the Family, Sean Saves the World, and The Michael J. Fox Show, the writing was on the wall. With not much more than The Big Bang Theory, CBS easily defeated NBC’s offerings. With CBS’ announcement that they would air NFL games on Thursdays in the fall, it became clear that NBC was going to have to counterprogram to keep from being trampled.
At some point, NBC lost its touch and patience for building sitcoms like Cheers, Seinfeld, and The Office… none of which was an immediate ratings success. That’s too bad, but instead of lamenting the network’s inability to come up with suitable sitcoms, it’s better to sit back and marvel at the decades of comedy success that NBC managed to pull off. It was a heck of a run while it lasted.