Laughs have been hard to come by at NBC over the past decade. The onetime home of comedy classics like Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, and Friends hasn’t launched a hit sitcom in almost 10 years. Its most recent high-profile comedy failures have starred beloved Must-See TV alums like Michael J. Fox, Sean Hayes, Matthew Perry and Paul Reiser. Heck, the network even tried a show, Animal Practice, centered around a monkey (which execs bragged at the time was the “highest-testing character” on NBC’s fall 2012 schedule). But it—like almost every other sitcom has NBC has trotted out in recent years—was quickly canceled.
So now, NBC is trying a new approach: waving the white flag and asking the public to—please!—help make it funny again.
On May 1, the network is launching NBC Comedy Playground, a new initiative for comedy writers to pitch their series projects and bypass the usual drawn-out pilot season process. Beginning Thursday, anyone in the US can submit up to two video samples and up to two original video pitches via their website. An A-list advisory board—including comedians like Amy Poehler, Jason Bateman, and Mindy Kaling—will help select 10 finalists, which will be filmed as pilot episodes. NBC will then place series orders for two of those pilots, and air the shows next summer. (An additional finalist, voted on by the public, will be developed as a digital series.)
NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke called the move a direct result of “what’s happening on the Internet and what’s happening at the network.”
Or more accurately, what’s not happening at the network, which hasn’t had a hit sitcom since The Office, which debuted in 2005. That show averaged 9 million viewers in its heyday; now most NBC sitcoms, like Parks & Recreation and Community, are lucky if they pull in half that audience.
With this initiative, NBC executives are finally admitting that they are as confused as everyone else about how to hook mass audiences today. And if YouTube and Funny or Die can turn non-professionals into comedy sensations, why not try to tap the same resources? After all, they can’t do any worse than they already are.
NBC isn’t the only content provider to open up its development process to the public. This spring, Amazon crowdsourced its original series development for the second time, allowing customers to view all of its pilots. It then took that feedback into account when picking up six new series in March.
Even if the Comedy Playground doesn’t ultimately yield a slam-dunk hit, it shows that NBC is trying to be innovative by admitting that its current development system is broken. And if that prevents another monkey sitcom from making it to air, then we’ll all be winners.