Robert Greenblatt Robert Greenblatt

It's showtime for NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt. A year after taking the top programming job at the troubled network, Greenblatt admits this season has been a bust so far — but he sees a glimmer of hope.

"We had a really bad fall," Greenblatt admits, pointing to the disappointing launches of Prime Suspect and The Playboy Club. "People tell us that the only way we can go is up, but there's a lot of work to do before we get there." 

With any luck, NBC will start to see some signs of recovery next month. That's when they will use the Feb. 5 Super Bowl as a lead-in to the return of the singing competition The Voice, which qualified as one of the network's few bright spots last year. Then comes the bigger Greenblatt gamble: The following night, NBC debuts Smash, its heavily promoted drama about the making of a Broadway musical.

Smash represents the kind of quality fare that Greenblatt hopes will nurse NBC back to health. (It's a variation on former NBC chairman Grant Tinker's legendary mantra, "First, be best, then be first.") "It's something special," Greenblatt says. "It will break through the clutter and we're giving a cable-like launch to it."

But skeptics wonder whether the show's Broadway-musical setting is too niche, and if it will resonate beyond New York and Los Angeles. "I'm doggedly optimistic," says Brad Adgate of ad-buying firm Horizon Media. "It's a great cast and it looks different." Even Greenblatt is downplaying expectations: "I don't think it's make-or-break; it's just a really good potential long-term asset."

It's a long way from Showtime, which Greenblatt revitalized as entertainment president with hits like Dexter and Weeds. But a broadcast network requires more than one or two successes to survive, and Greenblatt knew NBC was in chaos when he took over as boss last January. But according to insiders, he was nonetheless stunned to see just how rough things were at the fourth-place network.

A year later, Greenblatt and his new bosses at Comcast (which took over NBC Universal a year ago) are spending money like mad, developing a bevy of new projects for next year, like a dramatic take on The Munsters. But he's under no delusion that they can turn things around overnight. "The old adage of 'It only takes one show to turn the network around' was maybe true 10 years ago, but in this day and age you need four or five hit shows to start turning things around," Greenblatt says.

Meanwhile, aging series that NBC used to depend on, such as The Office, The Biggest Loser and Law & Order: SVU, continue to bleed viewers and can no longer be counted on for support. Others, like Community (which returns in the spring) and 30 Rock, cultivate critical acclaim and loyal fan bases but small ratings. NBC's viewership dropped 9 percent this fall versus one year ago, and is down 11 percent among adults ages 18—49. And that was with the benefit of ratings powerhouse Sunday Night Football, which it can't rely on in mid-season. "They always have a tough first quarter once football ends," Adgate says. "They have a lot of holes to fill."

Rivals will be watching to see if NBC can still drive viewers back to its once-dominant prime-time lineup. "Have they fallen below critical mass?" wonders one competitor. "Are they at a point where it will take years to crawl out of the mess that they were put in?"

Even though NBC has high hopes for Smash and upcoming freshman drama Awake, it may be reality TV that actually starts the turnaround for NBC. The Voice faces stiff Monday-night competition, but if it holds up in Season 2, it will easily be NBC's No. 1 show. "The Voice has every opportunity to be a hit," Adgate says. "The question is, how well will it do against real competition," like CBS' powerhouse Monday comedies. Adds a competitor: "If it comes back weaker than last year, they'll have some tough times."

The network also hopes to make noise with the unscripted Celebrity Apprentice, particularly as press machine Donald Trump continues to flirt with running for president, and the return of Fear Factor, which opened big (though it has since dropped). Then, come summer, new judge Howard Stern promises to stir things up on America's Got Talent. "It's going to be tough," Adgate says. "But you've got to give them credit — their mid-season looks better than the fall."

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!