NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- I never got the whole "must-see TV" thing. As far as marketing hooks go, sure, it rolls off the tongue easily enough. But really, no eminently skippable leisure activity should be billed as "must-see." I'll accept a "must-see" designation for certain family- or health-related pursuits -- must-see christenings, must-see dialysis, etc. -- but I'm going to have to draw the line at "Suddenly Susan."
NBC never did, which is why the must-see tag became somewhat of a joke. You never felt left out at the water cooler on Friday morning if you missed an episode of "The Single Guy." You never heard anybody say, "Oh, man, the guy with the funny accent on 'Wings' -- he got everybody cray-zee with this wacky thing he said! They totally, absolutely, positively did not plagiarize 'Taxi' last night! Not at all!" (Separately: Can somebody please take the rhyming dictionary away from NBC's promotional department? At knifepoint, if need be?)
When you look back at the two-hour Thursday comedy block over the years, you find a surprising dearth of chuckle-worthy comedies and an even bigger shortfall of inventive ones. Which is why, 20-odd years after the network started thumping its chest and suggesting -- nay, demanding! -- that you rearrange your existence around "Boston Common" and "Jesse," it's so startling to realize that NBC has a Thursday lineup worthy of the "must-see TV"/"comedy night done right" bluster. I'm hard-pressed, in fact, to think of a single two-hour comedy block in TV's recent history that has hit the creative highs the current lineup of "My Name Is Earl," "30 Rock," "The Office" and "Scrubs" does on a weekly basis.
Sophisticated comic vision
The four shows don't share a lot in common beyond a sophistimacated comic vision and the absence of that beacon of merriment, the network-TV laugh track. "My Name Is Earl" offers slapstick and sarcasm in equal measures. "30 Rock" excels in farce, briskly skipping from one waggish setup to the next. "The Office" makes savvy use of its large cast and boasts the night's most stalwart comic anchor in Steve Carell. The criminally neglected "Scrubs" -- whose fans might have a valid negligence claim against NBC for bouncing the show from time slot to time slot and consistently delaying its arrival -- ably balances absurdist humor with genuine warmth.
Grouped together, however, they gel tonally and attitudinally. If you like one of these shows, you'll likely dig the other three as well. That means you'll be a good boy or girl and stay in front of your TV set from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. (7 to 9 central or mountain), taking diligent notes on the products advertised therein.
Or not. See, that's the problem. Thursday night, as you might have heard, has become the TV equivalent of the American League East; NBC is the Toronto Blue Jays in this tortured analogy. Nobody concedes nothin' to nobody, meaning that the NBC shows often find themselves crushed ratings-wise beneath the "Survivor," "C.S.I." and "Grey's Anatomy" juggernauts.
Maybe it's that the Thursday comedies, with their brisk wit, are simply too smart to ever capture the public imagination on a mass scale. It hurts my brain to ponder how anybody -- old or young, rich or poor, white or black or purple or plaid -- could find a slow-blinking, obvious sitcom like "Two and a Half Men" one-one-thousandth as funny or entertaining as any of the NBC shows. And yet its viewership is roughly two and a half times larger than that of "The Office," the most-watched of the NBC quartet.
Did I just call most of America stupid? I think I did. Don't take it personally, South Dakota.
Selfishly, I'd like to propose that every company in every product category -- diaper makers, funeral-services providers, business-to-business suppliers of analytics thingamabobs -- fight to the death for the right to advertise on the four NBC comedies. Advertiser support = good = Larry gets to see the shows he likes for a long, long, long time.
But I can't in good conscience make that kind of recommendation. The "Earl"/"30 Rock"/"Office"/"Scrubs" bloc doesn't resonate with a wide swath of the viewing public. I don't quite understand how the Nielsen ratings work in this era of TiVo and DVRs and time-shifteration, but it ain't exactly gangbusters with the 18-to-49 crowd either.
Of the four shows, "The Office" seems to have the most upscale advertisers, with a luxury-car brand or two complementing the usual assortment of movie and wireless-service ads. "Scrubs" and "Earl" attract a slightly lower class of brands, with "30 Rock" trending upward in the wake of its Emmy win for best comedy (not that anybody should be taking the Emmys seriously after "The Wire" got ignored).
There's an opportunity here, I think, for brands that fancy themselves a little cutting-edge. The release of the iPhone became a mainstream consumer event, but Verizon Wireless and others are readying their supposed iPhone killers. If there's a better audience on TV for such gizmos, I don't know where you'd find it.
Give NBC credit for trying, in any event. The net has tried in recent weeks to recapture some of its former "Seinfeld" luster via a series of vignettes touting Jerry Seinfeld's upcoming "Bee Movie" ("must-bee TV," perhaps? Hoy-o!). These didn't prompt me to watch the ads that surrounded them, of course, but I fast-forwarded much more slowly than I usually do. That's a victory of sorts.
Embracing product placement
The four NBC comedies have also embraced product placement, but in a transparent way that feels consistent with their comic tone. Take "30 Rock," which last season hyped Snapple so flagrantly that I half-wondered whether Snapple was in on the joke (it was). Then there's "The Office," which accomplished the impossible by somehow making the potato-skin-worshipping Chili's chain seem fun and a little hip. Smart mainstream brands would be well-served to pursue the clear openness of these shows to work with them.
Anyway, yeah, I'd consider it a personal favor if you supported "My Name Is Earl," "30 Rock," "The Office" and "Scrubs" with both your eyeballs and your extensive media budgets. Alas, the last thing any of these shows needs is yet another wildly enthusiastic endorsement from a half-smart East Coast dweller. Now, if the Midwestern mommies would get onboard ...