‘Community’ Schedule Shuffling Not Doing NBC Any Favors

Fans are excited for cult comedy's return, but reshuffling 'Parks and Recreation' could mean trouble for the network's lineup.

Fans of cult comedy “Community” are rejoicing at the news that the show is set to return to NBC’s schedule after a three-month hiatus. It will rejoin the Thursday night lineup at 8 p.m. on March 15 to complete its third season, though no decision has been announced as to whether the low-rated, critically acclaimed comedy will get a fourth season.

The show’s return will bump “30 Rock,” which has been pulling down series-low numbers in the 8 p.m. time slot since retuning on January 12, to 8:30 and “Parks and Recreation” will go on a five-week hiatus until “Up All Night” completes its season in April. “The Office” will hold on to its 9 p.m. slot.

NBC has had a difficult time attracting viewers to what is easily the best comedy block on network TV, but it’s certainly not the first net to have that problem (Fox couldn’t keep “Arrested Development” on the air). This latest decision, however, seems unlikely to help for a few reasons. It was a mistake to pull “Community” in the first place; the show is so full of callbacks and self-referential asides that removing it for any length of time was bound to hemorrhage casual fans who are not as familiar with the storyline as die-hards. And sacrificing the much more welcoming “Parks,” which itself has struggled in the ratings despite widespread acclaim, to bring “Community” back is not going to pull in more eyes. Instead, it’s only going to weaken the already low-rated lineup. Here’s why.

“Community” is not a welcoming show for new viewers. I am an avid TV watcher and a big fan of NBC’s smart Thursday comedies, but I’ve never been able to get into “Community” because I missed the boat early on. I’m not questioning its quality — by all accounts it’s a witty and wonderfully weird show — but it is loaded with callbacks and winks to a now three-season-long narrative arc, and if you haven’t been onboard since the beginning, you’re shut out. I’ve tried and failed to get into the show, even though it should be on my must-see list.

Consequently, I suspect it is going to perform even worse in its old 8 p.m. time slot than when it left it in December. If it flops at 8, the results will be disastrous for “30 Rock,” which, without a strong lead-in, seems likely to lose even more viewers at 8:30. “Parks and Rec” currently outperforms its “Rock” lead-in; it has its own devout fanbase, many of whom seem to skip “Rock” and tune in specifically for “Parks.”

“30 Rock” is arguably past its prime (though last week’s episode was admittedly the best in recent memory) and it is an expensive show to produce. Some expect that NBC may even announce that next season will be its last and that it will be a truncated 13-episode run at that. Matching “Community” with “30 Rock” from 8 to 9 is going to create an hour-long ratings void for NBC that is likely to negatively impact “The Office,” which already has been losing viewers since Steve Carell’s departure, though it remains NBC’s top Thursday comedy.

As for “Up All Night,” it’s been managing numbers comparable to “Parks” at 9:30. Though, that means the well-reviewed family comedy is losing 30 percent of it’s lead-in.

It’s a foolhardy move to temporarily shelve the only show that is really building on its lead-in (that’d be “Parks”) — I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that “The Office” ratings function pretty independently of “Parks’” — especially when it’s being done for a show that seems unlikely to rope in new viewers.

The reason for the shake-up, I suspect, is rooted in the network’s knowledge that the ends of “30 Rock” and “The Office” are near. They really want “Community” to work, and they trust enough that the brief absence of “Parks” from the schedule is unlikely to alienate viewers enough that they’ll abandon the show. (And they’re right. As upset as I am that “Parks” will be gone for five weeks, there’s no way I won’t be there when Leslie, Anne, Tom and Ron Swanson return on April 19.)

A smarter choice would have been to move “Up All Night” to 8 p.m., where its star power (Christina Applegate, Will Arnett, Maya Rudolph) and subject matter — a onetime party couple adjusting to parenthood — might attract viewers who normally may look to CBS for Thursday night entertainment. Keep the often-heartwarming “Parks and Rec” at 8:30. “Parks” is, like “Rock” and “Community,” a little weird, but it’s the most accessible of the three and thus the most likely to keep the “Up All Night” audience and maybe build on it.

“Community” is simply going to be an awkward fit anywhere on the schedule and is unlikely to ever be strong enough in the ratings to be a top-of-the-hour lead-in. If the net insists on keeping it — though it might want to consider a deal similar to the one reached to keep “Friday Night Lights,” another little-watched but much-loved show with a fervent fanbase, alive — it should consider moving it to 9:30, where it would benefit at first from “The Office.” NBC would be wise to greenlight a 13-episode season for “The Office” to let it wrap up story lines and depart the airwaves on its own terms before it is forced off by flagging ratings. It’s already had a great eight-season run; let it go out with grace. Conclude “The Office” big at Christmastime (the show has always shined with its holiday specials) and bring “30 Rock” back to conclude its own run with a 13-episode season in the spring of 2013.

And for goodness’ sake, stop shifting everything around so often. Shuffling your best shows like this makes it difficult for current fans — and especially people who do not follow the ins and outs of entertainment industry news — to find the shows they already like.

Do you agree with NBC’s decision to put “Parks and Rec” on a five-week hiatus for “Community”? Leave your comment below.