NBC's Bob Greenblatt: 'We had a really bad fall'
"We had a really bad fall," the new NBC programming chief said Friday to open the peacock network's sessions at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena. "It was worse than what I had hoped for."
For seven years now, NBC has been slipping further and further in the ratings, a painful reminder that the once preeminent TV network had not yet reached the bottom of its catastrophic descent. Last season was particularly bad as the network limped through the waning days of former NBCUniversal chief Jeff Zucker's regime, but this season has proved to be even worse.
NBC's ratings are down 11% in the advertisers' favorite category of viewers ages 18 to 49, compared with last season. Much of their slate, including "The Playboy Club" and "Free Agents," opened with a whimper, leading to early cancellations. Overall, NBC remains in fourth place in the network prime-time standings, attracting 7.4 million viewers a night. In contrast, network leader CBS pulls in more than 12 million viewers in prime-time.
Later this month marks the first anniversary of the takeover of NBCUniversal by Philadelphia cable giant Comcast Corp. Comcast executives have repeatedly said that reviving the ailing broadcast network is NBCUniversal's priority, and they brought in Greenblatt to do just that.
The pleasant and polite Midwesterner and former TV and Broadway producer became a star as the programming chief of premium cable channel Showtime. While there, he launched a string of hits that explored deeply flawed characters, including "Dexter," "Weeds" and "Californication."
Now Greenblatt is focused on the flaws in NBC's schedule. He was refreshingly candid Friday about NBC's considerable challenges: Veteran shows have been losing steam, and it has been six years since NBC launched a bona fide hit.
The silver lining, he said, is that "we have new owners, and they want us to succeed." He pointed to the multibillion-dollar commitments the company has made to keep two ratings engines, NFL football and the Olympics, on the network for years to come.
During the last 11 months, the company has restarted the nearly moribund Universal TV production studio. Greenblatt has been overhauling NBC's executive team, bringing in lieutenants who could help him develop and launch commercially successful shows.
But NBC needs more than one hit, he said. It is desperate for four or five strong new series, and programming a network takes a gambler's mentality.
"It's a bit of a crap shoot," he said.
Harry Connick Jr., Greenblatt said, would join the cast of "Law & Order: SVU" as the new district attorney and a love interest for star Mariska Hargitay, who reaffirmed her commitment to stay with the Dick Wolf show. The show has suffered viewership declines this fall with the departure of longtime costar Christopher Meloni, however.
NBC has not canceled the quirky Joel McHale sitcom "Community." Although NBC pulled the show from its schedule, Greenblatt said the network did so to make room on Thursday night for "Up All Night," which started the season on Wednesday nights, and for the return of Tina Fey's "30 Rock." Greenblatt stopped short of saying he would bring "Community" back next fall for a fourth season.
Addressing speculation that NBC was positioning Ryan Seacrest to replace Matt Lauer as a co-anchor on the network's profitable "Today" newscast, Greenblatt said such talk was premature. "Our hope and belief is that Matt will stay on the show," he said, adding that NBC would be interested in having Seacrest do Barbara Walters-like interview specials for NBC.
Don't expect the larger-than-life radio personality, Howard Stern — who is joining "America's Got Talent" to replace Piers Morgan, who now has a show on CNN — to be as outrageous on NBC's family-friendly summer contest as he is on his satellite radio broadcasts. Stern, Greenblatt said, genuinely likes the NBC show.
"He's a very thoughtful and intelligent person," Greenblatt said. "I don't think he has any plans to be a shock-jock judge ... to usurp the show and make it the Howard Stern circus."
NBC has been heavily promoting Greenblatt's pet project, "Smash," a scripted drama about the behind-the-scenes making of a Broadway musical. The show, produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, the team behind the movie "Chicago," stars Katharine McPhee, Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston. It is slated to premiere at 10 p.m. Monday Feb. 6, the night after NBC's broadcast of the Super Bowl.
Three years ago, Greenblatt produced "9 to 5," which had a short run on Broadway. Some TV industry executives have wondered whether "Smash," which reflects Greenblatt's tastes and sensibilities, would attract a large enough audience to survive on network TV.
There's little question that "Smash" would pop on a cable channel, but it will be an interesting test case for broadcast television — and for Greenblatt.
" 'Smash' is going to be very important to us, but I don't believe it is a make-or-break show," Greenblatt said, trying to temper expectations. "We are very proud of it." But if it doesn't work, he said, "it's not like we are going to go into receivership."
— Meg James
Photo: Bob Greenblatt at the Television Critics Assn. meeting. Credit: Chris Haston/NBC.