We’ve Officially Reached the Death of “Must-See TV”

For the first time in years, NBC will not air a sitcom on Thursday night

The cast of "Friends"
"Friends" was the centerpiece of NBC's Thursday-night lineup for 10 seasons.

When Law & Order: Organized Crime makes its debut on NBC tonight, it won’t just mark the beginning of Christopher Meloni’s triumphant return to the Law & Order universe after a 10-year break from portraying Detective Elliot Stabler — it’ll also be the end of an era.

The new show will join Manifest and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in the network’s Thursday-night block, marking the first time in years that NBC has not aired a sitcom on the night it used to call “Comedy Night Done Right.” Since 1984 — save for two seasons between 2014 and 2016 when the cancellations of two duds, Sean Saves the World and The Michael J. Fox Show, forced the network to recalibrate its lineup — NBC has pushed comedy on Thursdays, marketing it as “Must-See TV” and dominating time-slots with classic sitcoms like Cheers, The Cosby Show, Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and more recent favorites like The Good Place and Superstore.

But with The Good Place and Superstore now both off the air, the network appears to be pivoting away from comedy on Thursdays. In a lot of ways, it makes sense. Streaming has forever changed the landscape, and the notion that people would spend a specific night of the week huddled around the TV to catch all their favorite shows is now antiquated. What does it matter if a show airs on Thursday when the majority of viewers are going to watch it the following day on Hulu or wait until it turns up on Netflix and binge it all at once?

The abundance of streaming services has also hurt network sitcoms in general. Because they’re not beholden to the same rules about things like cursing and nudity, shows on streaming services have more creative freedom than their broadcast counterparts, making them perhaps more appealing to that coveted 18-34 demographic. And thanks to the glut of content these days, NBC’s Thursday-night lineup isn’t just competing with rival networks and streaming services; it’s competing with itself. Particularly during the pandemic, many viewers have gone back to what they know instead of committing to a new show. Why watch something else when you can just rewatch old episodes of The Office for the millionth time whenever you want?

In addition to changing our viewing habits, COVID-19 has also thrown a bit of a wrench into the way shows are made. While reality shows can be shot in isolation and dramas — especially those about first responders — can more easily incorporate actors’ need to wear masks into their storylines by addressing the pandemic onscreen, it’s tougher to shoehorn such things into a situational comedy if the situation is anything other than “there’s an outbreak of a deadly virus.” As such, many planned comedies experienced production delays last year while other genres were able to press on, resulting in a (hopefully temporary) sitcom shortage.

None of this bodes well for NBC’s storied Thursday-night block, and it seems unlikely that we’ll ever again see it filled with a murderer’s row of highly rated comedies the way it was in the ’90s and ’00s. With “Must-See TV” gone, it appears we’re inching closer and closer to the death of appointment television as a whole. That’s not necessarily an entirely bad thing, and there’s certainly something to be said for the convenience that comes with not having to be in front of your TV at a specific time to stay current on your favorite shows, but it also means that the “water-cooler moments” of yesteryear are few and far between. It’s far more difficult for a show to break into the zeitgeist when we’re not all watching the same things at the same time.

This didn’t happen overnight, of course, and NBC seems determined to lean in to the streaming boom, pushing AP Bio, its funniest show in years, off the air and onto its Peacock service. Perhaps that’ll be the network’s new dumping ground for its comedies while it focuses on game shows and cop shows — things it knows the people who still tune in to broadcast television watch. “Must-See TV” is dead; “Must-Stream TV” is the way of the future.

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