Why NBC's Whiplash 'Will & Grace' Renewal Is a Smart Play

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A table read for the revival of 'Will & Grace.'
A table read for the revival of 'Will & Grace.' Credit: Robert Trachtenberg/NBC

NBC's decision to double down on its reboot of "Will & Grace" a good two months before it returns to the airwaves may be a bit of a head-scratcher, but given how low the broadcast comedy bar has been set, Bob Greenblatt's gambit isn't a particularly risky venture.

The NBC entertainment chairman announced the renewal during a Thursday session at the Television Critics Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif., saying that a 13-episode tenth season of "Will & Grace" will follow on the heels of this fall's 16-part arc, which premieres Sept. 28. As it happens, Greenblatt's surprise news bite arrived a day after the cast ran through its first table read in a decade.

"There's been such an outpouring of love from the fans," Greenblatt said. "We are a very grateful network, and we're more than thrilled to have this show on the air for a minimum of two seasons."

While premature renewals are generally best left to the Netflixes and HBOs of the TV ecosystem -- as neither service is ad-supported, ratings aren't nearly as consequential -- Greenblatt's decision to go all-in on a show that's been mothballed since the midway point of George W. Bush's second administration isn't exactly a high-stakes gamble. After all, the revamped "Will & Grace" won't have to put up "Big Bang Theory" or "Modern Family" numbers to be considered a success; during the 2016-17 broadcast season, NBC's five comedies averaged a meager 1.0 C3 rating, which translates to just 1.28 million adults 18 to 49.

Comedies have been such a low-yield crop at NBC of late that the genre hasn't generated north of a 1.5 average in the C3 commercial ratings currency since the 2012-13 season, and even then the network brass canceled nine of the 11 sitcoms that were on the schedule.

If "Will & Grace" manages to eke out so much as a 1.0 in the guaranteed demo, it will have earned its keep. Last season, a mere one-tenth of a ratings point separated the Peacock's lowest-rated renewed comedy (the Tina Fey-produced "Great News," which averaged a 0.8 rating) from its lone canceled sitcom ("Powerless," 0.7).

Speaking of diminshed ratings expectations, Greenblatt told TCA attendees that time-shifted and digital viewing was keeping the wolf from the door, citing Nielsen live-plus-35-day data that seemed to suggest that its year-ago hit "This Is Us" is averaging a 13.0 rating in the 18 to 49 demographic when DVR and non-linear views are factored into the mix. The trouble with that is, live-plus-anything program ratings isn't the currency against which TV ad deals are transacted. The only relevant numbers have to do with average commerical deliveries; in the case of "This Is Us," the freshman season averaged a 3.1 in C3 and a 3.4 in C7.

Meanwhile, no longer tasked with going head-to-head with broadcast's highest-rated scripted show (a post-upfront switcheroo will keep "Will & Grace" from having to compete with CBS's "The Big Bang Theory"), the reboot will now lead out of NBC's highest-rated comedy, "The Good Place."

"The Good Place" averaged a 1.3 C3 rating in its regular Thursday night time slot, which isn't too shabby, given that all live-action comedies last season managed just a 1.0 in the 18-to-49 demo.

Naturally, if "Will & Grace" winds up being a disaster along the lines of the Hindenburg crashing into the deck of the Andrea Doria, NBC always has the option of reversing course. Series orders are made and unmade all the time; in the last five years alone, the network has sidelined a number of projects that had been green-lit and sold in the upfront.

Among the more notable examples are the 2015 reboot of "Coach," which had its straight-to-series order rescinded just weeks before the start of the season, and "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," which was shipped off to Netflix in November 2015. Other orders that never made it to the big show include the 2012 Dane Cook project "Next Caller," and "Mockingbird Lane," the pilot episode of a reanimated "The Munsters" that was burned off two weeks after NBC yanked Cook's show form contention.

However things shake out for "Will & Grace," the show won't come anywhere near of the highs it enjoyed when it was part of NBC's formidable "Must-See TV" lineup between 2000 and 2006. At its third-season peak, "Will & Grace" averaged a whopping 17.3 million viewers and a 9.4 rating in the key demo, which works out to 11.8 million adults 18 to 49. By comparison, last season's top-rated scripted hit, AMC's "The Walking Dead," averaged 11.4 million viewers and a 5.4 in the comparable demo.

It is, perhaps, also worth noting that "Will & Grace" notched its lowest ratings in its eighth and final season. No longer boosted by high-octane running mates like "Friends" and "Scrubs," "Will & Grace" closed out its initial run with an average draw of 8.63 million viewers and a 3.6 rating -- good for 4.7 million adults 18 to 49. If the reboot delivers even a third of those targeted viewers, it will be judged a howling success.

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