How NBC Can Save Itself From Being NBC
Hit the wall, kick out the dead, throw it in reverse and punch the gas. Hard.
Well, there's your big fiery death ball. Again. No, not the meteorite in Russia, the one that hit NBC on Wednesday like the gods themselves threw it out of anger.
The Tuesday night ratings arrived like a swarm of jackals on a nursery and the carnage was not pretty, nor even merely passably unattractive. Go On tanked. The New Normal one-upped that tankage. And Smash, well, yeah, it's smushed. If NBC wanted to find a silver lining, it could have touted the fact that Betty White's Off Their Rockers, a show with a concept older than the people it features, was its highest-rated program, reaching roughly 3.5 million people in the, what, 100-million-plus homes NBC has a key pass to? There's no silver lining in that. Just a dry cleaning bag to kill yourself with.
Yes, every broadcast network sans CBS, which has been the best-run and most efficiently ruthless broadcaster for years now, is living a nightmare scenario that makes Cormac McCarthy's The Road look like The Sound of Music. But over at NBC, currently housed on an Indian burial ground, the relentless failure is no longer tragic -- just numbingly consistent.
When NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt came to NBC from Showtime, all the little birds sang him the same song: You're in the broadcast network business now, Bob, you can't make that delicious cable fare anymore. You're in the big tent with the big boys, and you need to appeal to the largest possible audience. None of that niche candy you used so effectively to get Showtime out of HBO's shadows. Now you play by our rules.
And he did. At the time, that was wise. Even though the signs were already there that broadcast television needed a revamp, the Modern Familys and American Idols of the world were still doing big business, and CBS had all that glittery gold. Greenblatt had no choice but to run NBC like a network, even if the previous stewards had run it like hardware store. So he did.
A lot of good it did him. Not many people are that visionary and daring, but wouldn't it have been nice if, when everybody told him he couldn't run NBC like Showtime, he gave them a one-word response: "Bullshit."
Because, let's face it, he's basically running a cable channel now. And so is everybody else but CBS. The difference is, Fox and ABC are unlikely to ever buy into the fact that CBS is in a different business -- a business they own, outright. The other three in the so-called Big Four are playing a mug's game. CBS is Alec Baldwin with all the good leads in Glengarry Glen Ross (and that's Les Moonves playing the Baldwin role, by the way).
Right now Greenblatt has a very slim chance to take a very, very big risk. Look, you don't become a bad programmer just because you run a network. As much as people assume television is run by idiots, the people running the networks are all smart and have all done great work in cable. Greenblatt, however battered he may be -- and the gods only know how deep he is into this psychotic remaking of his persona to fit the demands of Kable Town and the ruined husk of the broadcast universe -- he is still creative and smart and has the chops to leave NBC and go to some cable channel and do great things.
But why leave? Why not turn NBC into a cable channel right now? First, let's just point out the likelihood of what will happen to Greenblatt (and every other person who has ever been an entertainment president at a Big Four network) in no time: He'll be fired. He knows that. We know that. It's not if, but when (even if the when is five seasons away, which it's not). He can either go out the traditional way, trading mediocre shows for mediocre shows and hoping for a miracle or a revolution of the current environment, or he can fool himself into thinking that all the pilots he's greenlighting now will be amazing and different and a magnet for -- toss out a number? -- 10 million viewers a week, with a robust 4.0 in the demo to make the advertisers slobber.
That's the seductive, sad dream that others have bought into. You know, right before they got walked out back and before their eyes could adjust to the sun, someone put a piano wire around their neck and announced in a press release that they were "hanging out their shingle" to produce new shows. And they were wished well, as the employees drove around the carcass in the parking lot.
Don't do that, Bob. Look at the numbers around you -- not just NBC's numbers (don't stare at those!) but those of ABC or Fox or The CW. Do you know what those numbers are, Bob? They're cable numbers. So be a cable channel. But run it like you would run the cable channel you'll get offered to run when NBC fires you. Do it now.
Yes, it's late in the game. It's already March. Whatever you've got planned for next fall and midseason probably isn't anywhere near the caliber you'd have planned if you were running a boutique cable channel, like AMC -- home to the that tiny little zombie show that eats everybody's dinner. But try to make something of what you've got. Tear up scripts. Hire even more creative people to work with the creative people you've hired to make shows for next season. Adjust the premises. Get different actors or different showrunners. Hell, this is your thing. This is what you do best. Do your cable thing, Bob. If you're going to go out, go out on your terms. All the numbers are low in broadcast network television for a reason: People don't like broadcast network television anymore. At least not in droves they don't (stop looking at CBS -- they're doing something else). Make cable shows. Do something potentially brilliant or different or whatever, and maybe it'll pull in 4 million viewers. But they'll be loyal because the shows are good. Make more of those good shows, and pretty soon you can bring a modified Showtime attitude to broadcast television.
Do you know why? Because broadcast television is dead. It's going to be remade in some different, less enormous form. Why not be the pioneer in that change? You had your heart in Smash. But Smash is dead. Move on. Hell, you put on a show with a monkey, for God's sake. How about you go back to doing what you do better and see what happens?