NBC announced a new content development scheme Tuesday night: the NBC Comedy Playground. Essentially a crowd-sourcing of sitcom pitches, the network's latest effort to air shows people actually want to watch is its "broad comedy" commitment taken to its logical – and extreme – conclusion.
While "Comedy Playground" sounds like it could be a low-budget spinoff of Hollywood Game Night, where NBC wrangles whatever "stars" it can convince to hang out on a jungle gym for primetime TV, it's actually a "grassroots initiative" to think up new ideas for comedy series. In other words, NBC is asking the American public to come up with its programming.
Here's how it'll work: From May 1 to June 30, entrants who are "broadly-skilled creative, comedic talent" can apply and submit pitches to the Comedy Playground. You must submit a 5-10 minute video of something funny you've already created, and then a 5 minute video describing your pitch for NBC. Pitches must be for a live-action, 30-minute situation comedy (sorry, Family Guy ripoffs). Submissions are then judged by NBC reviewers ("employees from various departments"), and if you submission is scored high enough, it moves on to the semifinals, which is judged by NBC executives. The finalists then score funding to produce 20-minute "pilot presentations," and the ultimate winners are selected by a panel of NBC's top talent (Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, and Michael Schur, among others). Two winners will get their shows ordered to series and aired on NBC. A third winner, chosen by popular vote, will get a digital series on NBC.com. Check out this nifty infographic on the whole process:
On the surface, this sounds like a neat idea. It could be, as NBC describes it, "an innovative way" to "discover fresh, comedic voices." But there's no way this actually works, right? Let's consider the current state of NBC comedy. Two years ago, NBC entertainment chair Robert Greenblatt unveiled his "broad comedy" manifesto, lamenting that shows like Parks and Recreation and Community "tend to be a bit more narrow than we'd ultimately like going forward." He called Whitney a "step in the right direction." Since then? Every "broad" sitcom NBC has thrown on air has come and gone, while Parks and Community survive. Yet NBC still remains committed to this approach. And the "Comedy Playground" is just a gimmick to continue on the same futile road.
Realizing that NBC's in-house comedy production isn't working, the network now turns to its viewers. In this case, "broad" means literally everyone in America. Greenblatt wants comedy that appeals to everyone? What better way to get that than to ask everyone for ideas (well, everyone who is a member of the Writers Guild of America, that is, as all finalists must be registered with the WGA to be eligible). The contest submissions will be evaluated on a series of factors: "entertainment value, humor, originality, relatability, and likelihood of watching." It's those last two, we're betting, that are the most important. It seems doubtful that truly the cream of the crop will be ordered for series; by placing the decision in the hands of an "advisory panel" (on which there are woefully too few women) NBC can ensure whatever winners are chosen remain in line with its comedic vision. It's going to be The Michael J. Fox Show, without Michael J. Fox. Nothing off-brand (see: narrow) is going to win.
Essentially, it means NBC is looking for shows that appeal to the lowest common denominator. You see this in it's third-place consolation prize. The network is now making content decisions based on popular vote, so it can say "hey, we're just giving you guys what you asked for" when the shows end up floundering (as nearly all of NBC's comedy content has recently).
Maybe this is NBC's way of telling its detractors to shut up – in a "if you have such a problem with the way we've been doing things, we'll let someone else try to figure it out" kind of way. And it's not a bad idea, giving outsiders a shot at cracking into the insular world of network television. But it's an empty promise: the same people, ultimately, are making the final decisions. Which means what we'll likely get is more of the same, "broad" appeal and all.