Don't tell anyone, but NBC's days as a purveyor of quirky comedy may be coming to an end.
After dodging rumors over the weekend that "30 Rock" was about to enter its final season, NBC executives finally confirmed Monday that the odd Tina Fey creation -- a sitcom about the inner workings of TV -- will indeed bid farewell in a one-hour finale this fall. NBC is also moving "Community" -- a show with a rabid fan base -- to Fridays, typically a program's last stop before being swept off the schedule for good (think "Chuck" on NBC last year).
These two programs have rabid fan bases -- the type who send humorous snippets around the web-i-verse and race to blog about plot points. Why cancel such a social-media bonanza?
Well, critical acclaim and viral fervor aside, the shows have not been generating great ratings . For its part, "30 Rock" snared around 2.7 million people on average between the ages of 18 and 49, according to Nielsen, for the season as of May 13. (In another potential hitch, its contract with Alec Baldwin, who has talked about leaving his essential role on the show playing Jack Donaghy, expires after the upcoming season.) Meanwhile, "Community" has captured about 2.4 million, Nielsen said. Fox's "New Girl," in comparison, has attracted about 5.3 million in the same time period.
Fans of these programs may be shocked by their exit or demotion to Friday, but my guess is that NBC is growing more interested in comedies that appeal to a broader fan base. The fresh NBC fall comedy, "The New Normal," for instance, has quirky characters but also looks to ape the dynamic that made ABC's "Modern Family" such a success: roping together a wide assortment of characters that we don't think of as "traditional" members of a family, but who form one nonetheless. The wide array of character types (a bigoted mother, two upscale gay men, a woman who will carry their child as a surrogate) draws in many different strands of audience.
Getting comedy right is becoming the big TV networks' strategy for success. Half-hour sitcoms are more accessible to a wider array of viewers than serialized dramas that seem to grow more complex and unwieldly with every season (Conspiracy theories! Weird scientific phenomena! Rifts in the fabric of time and space!). And sitcoms are cheaper to make, too.
For all their smart dialogue and hipster moves, "30 Rock" and "Community" likely appeal more to viewers in New York and Los Angeles than they do to folks in the nation's breadbasket. In a different era, NBC ran to the bank with such stuff ("Friends," "Seinfeld," "Mad About You"), so much so that the network continued to mount less-successful clones for years ("Coupling," "The Single Guy, "Boston Common") with ever-declining results.
Comcast, NBC's still-new owner, understands that winning broad audiences is more important than being clever, even if its offbeat comedies bring in the high-income audiences that advertisers say they covet. During NBC's upfront presentation, NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt went so far as to praise the producers of "Parks & Recreation," the sitcom featuring Amy Poehler (part of Tina Fey's comedy cohort), for making the program more widely appealing over the course of the most recent season.
We'll miss Tina Fey and Joel McHale (assuming "Community" is seeing its last season). They are likely, however, to turn up somewhere else, maybe even at NBC. But sitcoms like "30 Rock" and "Community," are, simply put, getting too smart for the room. We may never seem them again, unless we subscribe to Showtime or HBO.
Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.