Ed Martin Live from the 2012 Winter Television Critics Association Tour
I have attended hundreds of press conferences at dozens of Television Critics Association tours spanning more than twenty years and I have rarely heard a top executive speak with the disarming candor that NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt brought to the stage Friday during his network's TCA day.
"We had a really bad fall, worse than I'd hoped for but actually about what I expected," Greenblatt admitted in his opening remarks. "People keep saying the only place we have to go is up, which I do believe is true, but there's a lot of work to do before we get there."
"In the meantime, I really appreciate how respectful you've all been towards me personally as well as towards my staff, many of whom are brand new," he continued, putting into words something many television executives fail to comprehend: Honesty and truth go a long way toward earning respect from the press. I don't think there is a critic or reporter covering this tour that does not appreciate Greenblatt; including the breathless bloggers and hyper tweeters for whom context and analysis are elusive attributes, if not ignored annoyances.
"As you know, our many challenges include the fact that we have few strong lead-ins," Greenblatt said, continuing to bare all. "Our most recent scripted hit is six years old." [I'm not sure which show Greenblatt was referring to, as I can't recall the last time anyone writing about NBC used the words "scripted" and "hit" in the same sentence.]
Greenblatt made clear that new NBC Universal owner Comcast is committed to resuscitating the struggling network. "The good news about NBC today is that we have new owners and they're investing in our business not only with substantial financial resources, but with their patience," he said. "They want us to succeed, and they're willing to do anything to make that happen, and that includes big financial commitments to the NFL and to the Olympics and financial commitments to reinvigorating the owned stations and providing me with everything that we need at NBC Entertainment to go after primetime."
Everything about NBC's day at TCA – arguably the network's best overall presentation at a tour in years – reflected Greenblatt's comments about renewed energy at NBC. That's not to say that every show NBC presented here on Friday will be a success; indeed, it is quite possible that not one of the six new series showcased for critics will survive. That will largely depend on whether or not a broadcast-size audience can embrace and support shows with what is commonly referred to these days as cable quality, which many of NBC's upcoming shows have.
Greenblatt's candor didn't end with NBC's woes; he also put the cable conundrum into perspective. "The beauty of cable is you make three pilots, you pick up three pilots, you declare them hits, and they run for five years, and you've wasted no money in pilot production costs and very little in development," he explained. "It's just a different animal.
"The ratings for a [cable] program really don't correlate to the bottom line," he continued. "You have to put on good shows to grow your subscriptions. At Showtime Prime Suspect would have been picked up by the third episode and declared a hit and would have probably been in production for four or five years. But when you look at each [broadcast] show and look at what it cost to make it versus what the ratings are versus what the advertising revenue is for that time period, you can't [say], 'Oh, we love the show. We're just going to keep it on for as long as we want.' That's the big dilemma."
Greenblatt's resolve will likely be put to the test when the shows NBC previewed on Friday make their debuts. Smash, the sparkling drama with music about the making of a Broadway musical, has critics publicly cheering but privately fretting that it may be too "inside baseball" for a broad audience. (More Greenblatt candor: "I don't think [Smash] is a make or break kind of a show for us. We are really proud of it and excited about what it could do.") Awake" a deep, dark and very dramatic story about a detective caught between two alternate lives or dream-states after a devastating car accident that destroys his family is similarly admired by TCA members, but may be too challenging for casual viewing. The new rom-com Bent may not be the best sitcom to come along in recent years, but unlike the new comedies NBC introduced last fall it doesn't suck, and that's saying a lot. It's definitely more agreeable than the upcoming comedy Are You There, Chelsea? from executive producer and series co-star Chelsea Handler.
Throughout, NBC placed so many stars and interesting personalities on its stage that the day began to feel like one from TCA tours of yesteryear, when the broadcast networks were large and in charge. They included Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Cee Lo Green and Adam Levine of The Voice; Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie and Elle Macpherson of the new reality series Fashion Star; Josh Lucas and Juliette Lewis of The Firm; Jason Isaacs, BD Wong and Cherry Jones of Awake; Amanda Peet and Jeffrey Tambor of Bent, and Anjelica Huston, Debra Messing and Katharine McPhee of Smash. The only NBC primetime luminaries missing were Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin.