That's how things seem to work, but that's not how they've usually worked. Seinfeld, Cheers, M*A*S*H, Frasier, All in the Family, Friends, The Cosby Show...all drew big ratings, and all were critically acclaimed.
With the exception of Outsourced, NBC's current Thursday night lineup features four of the five most critically revered comedies on network television. The Office has an uphill battle to fight without Steve Carrell, and 30 Rock stumbled considerably the past two years, but Community is probably the most inventive show on the four major networks, and Parks and Recreation features some of the best writing. Still, people aren't watching, at least in network numbers. One week in January, all four shows were soundly beaten by a rerun of $#*! My Dad Says, a show later canceled after 18 episodes.
The failure of Must See TV's lineup despite the uniform excellence of its programs is due to a number of factors. The easiest excuse is to blame American viewers, who seem to wander like cattle from reality show to reality show, and gobble up rote, easy punchlines like slop in a trough. That may be part of the problem, but that's always part of the problem, and it didn't stop shows like Seinfeld and Cheers. Or Modern Family, a current super hit on ABC.
The main issue is probably still accessibility. The Office, the lineup's longest running show, suffers a bit from fatigue. It's crowd-pleasing enough and has long-running characters, but with Michael Scott gone and Jim and Pam married with a child, it'll be difficult to drum up new interest. 30 Rock is too insider-y. (That's not a complaint, it's just true.) Community, while it features excellent storytelling, is probably too innovative for its own good. Viewers who might be drawn to its rich character development and colorful bit characters ("Pop pop!") could be turned off by genre changes and the relentless meta-joking. Pop culture references may be a draw for Gen X/Yers, but it seems to throw Baby Boomers off.
Strangely, the network's best shot for broad appeal might be its least visible: Parks and Recreation. It's the one show on the entire lineup I think my parents would love, with whip-smart writing, a sweet-natured vibe, some occasional slapstick, and a character who bleeds charisma and libertarianism in Ron Swanson. Week to week, though, Parks and Rec seems off the radar, even as it's put in another terrific year after a stellar season 2.
None of these shows matches the simplicity of Modern Family, which works wonders crossing Arrested Development's color palette, The Office's mocumentarian angle and Home Improvement's morality lessons minus the sap. Still, with two prominent gay characters, Modern Family was hardly an obvious ratings smash in middle America.
This gets at one of the ongoing problems with the networks: a dismal regard for audience intelligence. Executives would prefer to spoonfeed tasteless mush assuming that's what people want, but if you give people steak, they'll want steak. The reason Modern Family is a hit now is audiences eventually accepted Arrested Development and, to a lesser extent, The Office. Through its Must See TV lineup and its patience with Friday Night Lights, NBC has historically respected its audience more than any other network. I hope it pays off again.