NBC Universals TV Division Lost Its Voice Under Susan Rovners Leadership

What’s NBC nowadays?

Even before the ongoing writers strike scrambled the network’s fall schedule, its identity — historically quite strong as a place for chewy, grown-up dramas and chic, cerebral sitcoms — had seemed hazy. Promising comedies, the sort that might have grown to fulfill the role recently played by “30 Rock” or “Superstore,” got unceremoniously booted from the air after barely a chance to thrive; new dramas, from “Ordinary Joe” to “The Thing About Pam,” seemed painfully undistinguished. 

It’s been a tough few years. And as much as the departure of former NBCUniversal chairman Susan Rovner, a career TV executive previously known for her work at Warner Bros. Television, is just latest bit of media industry consolidation, it’s also a moment to observe that the legacy network and its corporate siblings have struggled to find a way forward. (Rovner’s replacement, Donna Langley, will oversee both film and television for the company.) In the years since Rovner came into the job in 2020, there have been limited bright spots — the “Night Court” revival on NBC, “Poker Face” on streamer Peacock. But there’s been a general tone of a lack of faith in the core of what NBC is and does, one that makes today’s news feel like less of a surprise than it otherwise might.

Last month, for instance, NBC canceled “Grand Crew” and “American Auto” after a respective 20 and 23 episodes. Both felt squarely in the wheelhouse of what the network had done successfully in the past; “Grand Crew” was a loose friends-hanging-out show, while “American Auto” was created by Justin Spitzer, who’d previously brought the network the successful workplace comedy “Superstore.” That neither show could work — that, indeed, the only path forward for an NBC comedy seemed to be literally playing the hits, in the form of “Night Court” 2.0 — suggested a network at odds with itself. Streaming might seem to promise greater returns for old-style comedy. But both the “Saved by the Bell” reboot and “Girls5Eva,” series that shared creative DNA, and a trust-the-audience level of joke density, with “30 Rock” were given short leashes. (The latter seems potentially destined to break out as it moves to Netflix.)

Even by the standards of the churn-and-burn TV landscape of the 2020s, NBC and Peacock audiences were particularly trained not to get too accustomed to any one show. And, much as NBC’s identity seemed to flag and fade as the 2020s have worn on, Peacock has yet to make the particular case for itself beyond its unique identity as the home of the Olympics (and the Bravoverse). With the Olympics, sure, NBC Sports is an important part of the umbrella, but “Poker Face” stands out in part because it seems the beneficiary of real investment, like something not just any place could have made. If Peacock effectively took the place of NBCU cable channel USA, which was deep into the 2010s a real player in the spiky-scripted-drama space, it has yet to scale those heights. Early Peacock attempts like the true-crime docudrama “Dr. Death” and the Dan Brown mystery “The Lost Symbol” seemed not to draw large audiences — of course, without numbers, we’ll never know. But more significantly, they failed to present Peacock as something new and special. Made with workmanlike, dutiful execution, they felt like an attempt to reclaim network-TV glory, in a streaming environment where idiosyncracy and wit stand out. The irony, perhaps, is that they might have worked better on a content-starved NBC.

With “Bupkis” and “Mrs. Davis,” both released this spring, Peacock gave creative forces (respectively, Pete Davidson and Damon Lindelof, along with co-creator Tara Hernandez) notably long leashes. But the story of Peacock’s public perception, at least for a while, may have been written. So too may be NBC’s. It’s where many viewers turn the dial for morning news, or — in normal times — late night, and “Saturday Night Live.” But even at this dire moment, other networks have managed to find hits, from ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” to CBS’ “Ghosts.” They’re not in mass quantities, but they’re there. NBC’s been at a loss before — rewatch “30 Rock” reruns, one of the very best things on Peacock, to get granular humor about the network’s various late-aughts crises. But the time has come to make the last and best case for linear TV as audiences migrate, and to build out the streamers that will survive eventual consolidation. NBC, since 2020, has yet to do those things, and it falls to Langley, now, to play catch-up.

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