So while we were all off having a nice weekend (longer for some of us than others here in Chicago; thanks, NATO!), NBC and Sony essentially used Michael Scott from The Office’s filing system to let us know that Dan Harmon would not return as Community showrunner.
But alas for them, it’s 2012, and even a press release tossed into a dumpster at 6:30 p.m. on a summer Friday is going to see the light of day.
Predictably, given Community’s rabid and irritable fan base, the news of Harmon’s ouster did not go well, particularly once Harmon revealed Sony had never even contacted him to discuss contract renewal. From a public relations perspective, NBC and Sony couldn’t have handled this worse. They raised the Community community’s hopes by renewing the show, then crushed them by firing the guy responsible for the show’s voice.
The situation’s been well covered, from Alan Sepinwall analyzing how other shows have fared after the departure of a powerful showrunner to Tim Goodman spotlighting the stupidity of NBC. I certainly agree with the consensus (or at least the consensus among Community fans and critics I respect): booting Harmon is an imbecilic move that will alienate a sizable chunk of the show’s devoted viewers and rob the series of its uniqueness and soul.
But I’m also interested in what this means for network television as an ongoing concern.
…or Why NBC is Run By a Batch of Baboons
Television networks work very hard and spend millions of dollars trying to build a brand, so that when viewers think of ABC or Fox, they associate that network with specific traits and ideas. Of course, the networks want to control how we think about them and what we associate with them. The reality however, is that viewer conception of networks comes from a mix of the networks trying to brainwash us, the shows they actually put on the air, and a nostalgic, hazy feeling of what those networks used to be when we were younger and more impressionable.
Network identities have shifted over time as they evolve (or devolve) along with the shows they currently air, and reflecting the demographics of their audience. Moreover, a network’s image or self-image often has a direct impact on the fate of its shows. Quality shows get cancelled and intriguing pilots get rejected because they don’t fit the brand, while mediocre shows live on for years past their shelf life because they reinforce networks’ self-belief. Let’s examine how these brand identities have changed over the past 30 years.
At least 99 percent of Americans don’t watch Community regularly. Their reaction, upon learning that NBC left the show off its mid-season schedule:
On the other hand, everybody I know and follow on Twitter watches Community. Their reaction was more like this: