The Biz: Can NBC Be Saved?
NBC will soon have a new owner, a new entertainment chief — and a long road back to prime-time ratings success.
Once the government gives its stamp of approval to cable company Comcast's deal to buy a controlling interest in NBC Universal, former Showtime chief Robert Greenblatt will try to restore the luster of NBC's entertainment division. While NBC is a powerhouse in TV news and its cable networks are a profit machine (current executives in both divisions will remain in place when Comcast takes over), the most visible aspect of its business — the broadcast network's prime-time lineup — has deteriorated steadily throughout the decade. The once proud peacock has not turned out a new major ratings hit in five years, and its biggest shows — The Office, Law & Order: SVU and The Biggest Loser — are aging and in decline.
New management is looking for a rescue effort from Greenblatt, who in seven years at Showtime stewarded such lauded series as Weeds, Dexter and Nurse Jackie. He boosted the premium cable network's image and subscriber base. His credits as a producer include HBO's Six Feet Under; as a program development executive at Fox, he helped give life to The X-Files.
"He has amazing taste," says Garth Ancier, a former NBC Entertainment president. "If you look over the shows he's developed, you cannot overstate it."
An executive at a production company says Greenblatt will bring a "calming influence" to TV's creative community, which had been rattled by NBC's decision to hand five hours of its schedule over to Jay Leno last year partly to reduce programming costs. "He is someone that they have dealt with, and they respect him," says the exec. "They believe he will champion good product."
That may be true. But Greenblatt is coming from a network where shows about a pot-dealing mom, a righteous serial killer and a pill-addicted nurse can thrive with small, devoted audiences. Edgy shows with flawed characters have had a tougher time finding an audience on the broadcast landscape. "The big issue is how can he get something that appeals to 8 million to 10 million people," adds the production company exec. "Would Dexter have worked if it had been developed slightly differently for broadcast television? Maybe." Ancier says Greenblatt can make the formula work: "You can do flawed characters as long as the shows are good. If you are going to succeed on TV in this day and age, you are going to have to do things that are not so straightforward."
Greenblatt will need at least two years to put his mark on NBC. He'll arrive at the network barely in time to select from the scripts that have already been ordered as possible pilots for fall shows. In the meantime, the current regime has scrambled its mid-season schedule to determine if any of the shows developed for the current season will stick before the new executives take over.
The network has a decent track record in launching high-concept dramas such as The Cape, the superhero story that will fill in for The Event on Mondays beginning in January. In the new legal drama Harry's Law, NBC can at least tout that it has the first network drama starring Academy Award—winning actress Kathy Bates. The network is also trying something new on Thursdays, stretching its comedy lineup to make room for the returning Parks and Recreation and the new show Perfect Couples. 30 Rock and Outsourced will air in the 10 o'clock hour and should be able to improve on the record-low ratings of the current time period occupant, The Apprentice. Ironically, one of the first tasks for the new NBC bosses could be to tell Donald Trump, "You're fired!"
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