What NBC Needs to Do to Remain the No. 1 Network

Winning for a third straight season will take new comedy, Thursday hits

Four years ago, NBC was stuck in fourth place among adults 18 to 49, the same last-place slot it occupied among the major broadcasters since Friends went off the air in 2004. But, the network has clawed its way back to the top, reclaiming the No. 1 ranking for the first time in a decade. It's finishing No. 1 again this season, with a 2.4 rating in the 18-49 demographic, but CBS was close behind with 2.3.

While NBC made frequent mention of its two-year winning streak at its May 11 upfront presentation, holding on to that mantle for a third season will be its toughest challenge yet. Here's what NBC needs to accomplish to keep its top spot:

Make sure its football ratings stay super, even without the Super Bowl

Sunday Night Football remains a powerhouse, averaging a 7.7 in 18-49—which will top Empire as the season's highest-rated broadcast program—and should once again power NBC through the fall. But, while NBC had the Super Bowl to goose its ratings and secure its 18-49 advantage, the big game heads over to CBS in 2016. (While NBC has the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio in its back pocket, it doesn't take place until next August, long after next season wraps up.)

Solve its comedy conundrum

As NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt admitted in January, NBC has forgotten how to be funny. "We are really challenged by the comedy brand that we're trying to build on this network," he said. The network canceled all of its comedies except for Undateable (which will air live all next season), forcing NBC to practically start from scratch in the fall, with just one new comedy—People Are Talking. Greenblatt is saving his biggest comedies for midseason, including Coach, a revival of the Craig T. Nelson sitcom that aired on ABC for nine seasons in the '90s, and Hot and Bothered, which stars Eva Longoria and goes behind the scenes of a telenovela production. If those shows suffer the same fate as Bad Judge and A to Z, it could be a long, laugh-free season.

Hope that stars finally translate into viewers

Greenblatt is betting big on star power, with Longoria and Shades of Blue, a midseason cop drama starring Jennifer Lopez. But in the last two years, NBC freshman shows built around seemingly sure-thing stars like Michael J. Fox (The Michael J. Fox Show), Sean Hayes (Sean Saves the World) and Katherine Heigl (State of Affairs) all fizzled.

Fix Thursdays—again

NBC's Must-See TV heyday is long gone. Greenblatt tried to rebuild Thursdays—comedy-free for the first time in 35 years—earlier this year by moving The Blacklist to Thursday and sandwiching it between limited series The Slap and the quickly canceled drama Allegiance. The Blacklist, NBC's biggest scripted series, took a hit in live-plus-same-day ratings but has made some of those losses back in live-plus-three and live-plus-seven. However, The Slap and Allegiance were both DOA, so it's back to the drawing board for Thursdays next year. Greenblatt hopes a pair of new dramas, Heroes Reborn and The Player, will be more compatible with The Blacklist.

Keep The Voice strong

NBC continues to double pump The Voice each season, scheduling separate fall and spring cycles. While the show still wins the night among 18- to 49-year-olds on Mondays and Tuesdays, its fall ratings were down 20 percent (though ratings have rebounded this spring, with the return of Christina Aguilera).

"As long as the creative stays really strong and we keep monitoring the erosion, we'll keep doing it," Greenblatt said earlier this year of keeping the same approach with The Voice. "It still does better than almost anything else we have, even at the level that it's at now. So, selfishly, it's hard to say, 'Oh, for half a season, we're going to give up that rating.'" If The Voice can avoid an American Idol-level free fall while sticking with two cycles, NBC will have a good shot at staying in the running for the 18-49 crown next season.

The Broadcast Networks' 18-49 Season Rankings Over the Past Decade

2014-15
NBC 2.4
CBS 2.3
ABC 2.2
Fox 1.9

2013-14
NBC 2.7
Fox 2.5
CBS 2.4
ABC 2.1

2012-13
CBS 2.9
Fox 2.5
NBC 2.4
ABC 2.2

2011-12
Fox 3.2
CBS 3.0
NBC 2.5
ABC 2.4

2010-11
Fox 3.5
CBS 2.9
ABC 2.5
NBC 2.3

2009-10
Fox 3.7
CBS 3.2
ABC 2.7
NBC 2.7

2008-09
Fox 3.6
CBS 3.1
ABC 2.9
NBC 2.8

2007-08
Fox 4.2
ABC 3.0
CBS 3.0
NBC 2.8

2006-07
Fox 4.0
CBS 3.7
ABC 3.5
NBC 3.1

2005-06
Fox 4.1
ABC 4.0
CBS 3.8
NBC 3.3

2004-05
Fox 4.1
CBS 4.0
ABC 3.7
NBC 3.5