In his first appearance as NBC Entertainment Chairman at a Television Critics Association tour, Robert Greenblatt made clear that he loves all of his new children equally, introducing every session for each of his network's six new fall shows – plus veteran franchise The Sing Off -- something top broadcast executives rarely do at TCA tours.
Greenblatt was for the most part very effective not only in presenting his fall freshmen but in discussing his hopes and plans for NBC under his leadership. "The goal for this season and for the next few years is to rebuild the schedule," Greenblatt said, sounding like many a past broadcast network chief at one time or another. "We're going to be very aggressive. We want to restore NBC to its leadership position in quality. We're going to do attention getting shows. Hopefully we will have the patience to see those attention getting shows get their full shot at success."
"We're going to develop upscale original shows that hopefully appeal to our audience, which has always been more upscale and more desirable for advertisers than any of the other networks," he added.
In his previous position as President of Entertainment at Showtime, Greenblatt excelled in developing smart, sophisticated, high quality shows that appeal to discerning viewers. Of course, sophistication comes with certain limitations. One critic asked if the shows Greenblatt nurtured at the pay cable network -- including Sleeper Cell, The Tudors, Dexter and Nurse Jackie – could work on a major broadcast network like NBC.
"I don't think those shows would work in terms of the broad appeal that we're looking for," Greenblatt replied. "You know, we ran Dexter on CBS for half a season during the [Writers Guild of America] strike, and it did okay. Those shows work in smaller universes, where the business model isn't based on the most people watching a show. That said, I think what's interesting psychologically and conceptually about those shows, and I don't mean specifically, but sort of generically, is some of the thinking we have to bring to network television. I don't mean serial killers and pot-selling soccer moms. I think we've got to find ways to conceptually excite the audience, which has so much else to watch and so many diversions and so many great shows on cable."
Harking way back to his time as a programming executive at Fox, Greenblatt recalled, "We had the same mandate because Fox wasn't an established network and we had to figure out how [to] compete with the three big networks. We kept our eye on the notion of, we've got to do things that nobody else is doing. It's getting exponentially harder because there are dozens of networks doing original programming."
There's also the question of whether shows of the same quality as AMC's Mad Men, which don't necessarily earn ratings that reflect their buzz or their acclaim, can find an audience large enough on broadcast to ensure their survival. For example, could a show like [NBC freshman] The Playboy Club be broad enough to be a network hit "when even on cable a show like that only draws 2 million viewers?" one critic asked.
Greenblatt was diplomatic. "I have great respect for Mad Men," he said. "But I think in spite of the settings, the period being similar, I think The Playboy Club is much more of an energized soap opera, which is a genre that works really well. The tricky thing with soaps is the repeatability and all of that. But I don't think The Playboy Club … will feel like Mad Men when you ultimately see it. What I think it has going for it is a recognizable brand that's automatically going to draw attention to it, good or bad. I think it's a really fun soap that has a mob element and a crime element, so I think it's the right kind of thing for us to try."
One critic asked what kind of shows Greenblatt would be looking for at NBC as opposed to what he wanted at Showtime.
"This is a tricky way to answer this because I certainly don't want to turn NBC into Showtime, but I would love to bring some of the creative vitality to NBC that we had at Showtime," Greenblatt replied. "We just have to do it in a way that's really broad and commercial. The devil's in the details. So what am I telling producers? I'm trying to get the greatest writers and producers that I know to come to NBC. And while I want to sort of guide them into a broad arena, I also don't want to tie their hands so that the creativity gets sucked out of the show, which is often what happens in any network, cable or broadcast development."
One thing that has worked well for him in the past, Greenblatt added, was to find writers whose creative voices he "really, really" loved and then do everything possible to "stay out of their way. That said, we have to guide some of [them]. Cable's been such a dream for a lot of writers. Broadcast is more difficult. But I think hopefully they will all want to come and we'll find the right things to do together."
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