It's been a half-century since the hopes of a television network were pinned to one "lovable redhead," comedian Joel McHale said. Lucille Ball once propelled the fortunes of CBS, and now NBC is banking on Bob Greenblatt to be its modern-day savior.
Monday was Greenblatt's coming-out party at the Television Critics Assn. summer 2011 press tour. The last time this group of writers met, in mid-January, was during the waning days of the previous administration -- a decade-long period punctuated by NBC executives who made big promises -- but failed to deliver as NBC slipped farther behind in the ratings.
Greenblatt's performance Monday was, perhaps purposely, understated.
"It's been a very challenging six months for us," Greenblatt, the recently installed chairman of NBC Entertainment, told about 150 writers clustered in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. "It's no secret that NBC is in fourth place and we are working very hard, and very aggressively, to turn that around."
Repopulating NBC's executive ranks has been one of Greenblatt's primary assignments. Last month, the former Showtime programming head hired Jennifer Salke, a respected executive from Fox, to be his chief deputy as the new NBC Entertainment president. Greenblatt also recruited his press chief from Showtime, Richard Licata, to run NBC's communications.
Monday, Greenblatt announced that he had hired an accomplished CBS executive, Bela Bajaria, to help him oversee the company's television production studio, a unit that was gutted to save money when General Electric Co. owned the media company.
About five years ago, the Universal television studio was busy cranking out such hits as "Law & Order," "The Office," "House," and "Heroes."
However, in the last three years, Universal Media Studios has been a bit of a shell with a tiny staff that primarily serviced shows for NBC. Big-name producers bypassed the operation, instead preferring to do business with the more prominent Warner Bros. Television, Sony Pictures Television or 20th Century Fox Television.
"To me, that's not the place to save money," Steve Burke, chief executive of NBCUniversal, said after Greenblatt's session. "Hopefully people will know that is the place to go with good ideas."
Comcast Corp., which took control of NBCUniversal in late January, has identified NBC as its top priority and the unit desperate for a dramatic overhaul. Greenblatt, one of Burke's first hires, opened NBC's session by saying that he has spent the last six months convincing his new boss to raise NBC's debt ceiling -- something of a joke because Burke has said Comcast was more than willing to write big checks to buy quality projects and attract big names to NBC.
Greenblatt said the studio had signed development deals with several notable producers, including Greg Daniels who developed "The Office" for NBC and "Parks and Recreation." Greenblatt said he wanted Daniels, who made his fortunes with the cartoon comedy "King of the Hill," to experiment with animation.
The NBC studio also signed a development deal with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's Gary Sanchez Productions Television. Greenblatt said he is hoping to launch a comedy starring Sean Hayes of "Will & Grace" fame.
Greenblatt acknowledged that his challenge will be to find hits that appeal to broad audiences. That wasn't his concern at Showtime. The premium channel has thrived on the offbeat and often dark "Dexter," "Weeds" and "Nurse Jackie," programs with small audiences that would not necessarily pull the freight on a broadcast network.
"I certainly don't want to turn NBC into Showtime but I would love to bring to NBC some of the creative vitality that we had at Showtime," Greenblatt said. "Broadcast is more difficult. We just have to do it in a way that's really broad and commercial."
Burke was sitting in the wings during the session. How did he grade Greenblatt's performance?
"Great," Burke said. "He's got a nice quiet way about himself and he doesn't over-promise."
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NBC, Bob Greenblatt have much to prove ahead of the tall TV season
-- Meg James
Photo: Bob Greenblatt. Credit: Carolyn Cole