Can This Man Save NBC?
Robert Greenblatt, the exec Hollywood is counting on to reverse the peacock’s long plummet, isn’t your typical power broker (Hint: people actually like him)
When Edie Falco was looking for a post-Sopranos gig, she and her manager, Richie Jackson, did the network rounds.
“We met with Ben Silverman, Steve McPherson,” Jackson says, referring to the then-top programming executives at NBC and ABC, respectively. But the one who hit the right note was Robert Greenblatt, then head of entertainment at Showtime.
“We were taken with him because we only like to work with kind people,” Jackson says. “It’s our rule.”
Still, Jackson diligently called Michael C. Hall’s manager, Jon Rubinstein, to check that his instincts were right. The Dexter star had plenty of Greenblatt experience: He’d played David Fisher on the HBO drama Six Feet Under, produced by Greenblatt and his then-partner, David Janollari. And he’d gone on to star in Showtime’s unlikely hit about a serial killer.
Rubinstein started to paint what might have been an alarming picture. “He said, ‘Bob Greenblatt is involved in every aspect of it — every cut, the marketing, the publicity,’ ” Jackson recalls. “And he said, ‘It’s a pleasure.’ ” With that, Falco signed and eventually found the project that won her another Emmy, Nurse Jackie (with Jackson along as an executive producer).
The 50-year-old Greenblatt deserves an award for a different type of performance: playing the role of an exceptionally hands-on executive without leaving slash marks on his victims. Jackson says Greenblatt’s hyper-involvement works in part because of his respectful manner — and partly because it springs from passion for the job. “I think he loves it,” Jackson says. “I think that’s an infectious type of person to be around. He’s not ‘over-’ anything.”
That type of enthusiasm will be useful as Greenblatt labors to turn around a network that has become a punchline on its own air — from 30 Rock to whatever show Jay Leno is hosting. NBC has been in the basement for such a long time that recently it was valued at negative $600 million by Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan.
The network continues to struggle despite hope that it could begin a turnaround after the depredations of Silverman, who packed the schedule with flops — some from his own production company (Kath & Kim, American Gladiators). But so far, Undercovers has been yanked, The Event is faltering, and the network continues to flail.
But Harrigan now holds out hope. “Greenblatt is very well liked and has a great creative record at Showtime and [previously] at Fox,” he says. The challenge will be “to reconcile the cost realities of turning around the network with Comcast’s financial discipline,” Harrigan adds, though he thinks the cable giant will give its new hire some latitude to spend for now.
After all, Greenblatt’s daunting mandate is to save the flagship at a time when broadcast networks are in a fight to hold onto their audiences and advertising revenue. NBC is not an especially big part of its parent company’s financial picture, which is dominated by great swaths of green from USA Network and other cable properties. It generates about 10 percent of NBC Universal’s revenue but seems to suck up an inverse proportion of the ink spilled about the company.
Although the reorganization at NBC Uni had not been formally announced by press time, no one was disputing widespread reports that Greenblatt will run NBC’s broadcast network and television production studio, reporting to Comcast COO and NBC Uni CEO Steve Burke. The choice has been met with even more enthusiasm in Hollywood than on Wall Street.
Greenblatt is a very hot piece of executive talent, having transformed Showtime from an HBO wannabe into a respected — if much smaller — competitor. Showtime jumped from about 12 million subscribers to 18.4 million during his tenure; HBO has about 29 million. When Greenblatt started, Showtime’s diet consisted mostly of studio movies and some original series (Red Shoe Diaries, Queer as Folk). His taste for antiheroes wrestling with their issues — themes on Huff, Weeds and Dexter — helped Showtime scoop up 28 primetime Emmys during his seven-year tenure.
Greenblatt left that job in July, ostensibly because he was seeking new challenges and not because he had a new job in his sights. But certainly it’s possible that Burke had whispered a word to him about plans for NBC as the merger drew closer to completion: Greenblatt’s mentor, former News Corp. executive Peter Chernin, was consulting with Comcast, and the dots seem easy to connect.
It’s not clear that any mortal can save NBC, but if anyone has a shot, it might be Greenblatt. “He brings a strong point of view to the table in terms of what he likes, what he doesn’t like,” Dexter executive producer John Goldwyn says. Summing up the paradox of Greenblatt’s approach, he adds, “He speaks with certainty, yet he’s a great listener.”
One of Greenblatt’s great skills is the assessment and handling of talent. Greenblatt was “100 percent responsible for the casting of Michael C. Hall in the lead of Dexter,” Goldwyn says. And the choice wasn’t obvious. “Six Feet Under was off the air, and [Hall] was doing some Broadway theater,” Goldwyn says. “We knew who he was, but it was Bob who had an instinct. He’s an incredibly good sniffer of talent. And that was a bold decision. Dexter was an audacious bet to make.” It became Showtime’s biggest hit.
A few years later, Greenblatt set a brunch at the Chateau Marmont to woo Laura Linney for The Big C. “He had mentioned that Laura said she didn’t want to do TV but thought he might lure her with the script,” series creator Darlene Hunt says. “He assured her that he would work around her schedule. Also, he assured her that she would have creative input.”
Greenblatt told Linney that she could be a producer on the series — that she could be involved across the board. Then he waited six weeks while Linney considered whether to say yes. After she signed, he fulfilled every promise. “Bob is a man of his word, which is very rare in this business,” says Linney’s agent, Toni Howard of ICM. Hunt thinks Linney said yes, in part, simply because of Greenblatt’s nurturing style with talent. “You don’t feel like you’re negotiating something big,” she says. “You feel like you’re in good hands and it’s going to be a really nice working relationship.”
At Showtime, Greenblatt worked from an office dominated by a huge standee from Singin’ in the Rain — Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, larger than life — floating in glass. On the walls were pictures of Greenblatt with stars from Liza Minnelli to Barbra Streisand.
One associate says nothing about the presentation was accidental: Greenblatt is a careful manager of his image. His concern with the details was clear in his job at Fox, where he stacked scripts in his office in decorative patterns. His home is furnished in impeccable taste with arts-and-crafts furniture.
Here’s another paradox: For a man in the business of taking risks, Greenblatt is exceptionally careful. One phrase frequently used to describe his style is “close to the vest.” Even those who consider themselves close to him say they were kept in the dark about his plans with respect to NBC. “Bob was extremely cagey,” says one who knows him well. “It was the party line to everybody. … I think he was smart about it. He wanted a big announcement.”
Greenblatt grew up in the manufacturing town of Rockford, Ill., the freckled, red-haired son of an air-conditioning contractor. At 13, he began to fall in love with musical theater and threw himself into productions at Boylan Central Catholic High. He made his first theater trip to New York a couple of years after he graduated and told the Los Angeles Times last year that he kept the Playbills from that trip — and every show he’s seen since.
After graduating from the University of Illinois, he went on to earn two master’s degrees, one from University of Wisconsin/Madison School of Business and the other from USC’s School of Cinema-Television. A skilled pianist, he made money while a student at USC film school by playing at the now-defunct Hamlet Gardens restaurant in Westwood. It was 1986, and by day Greenblatt was interning at 20th Century Fox, assisting Scott Rudin and Sara Colleton (who eventually worked with her former intern as an executive producer on Dexter).
Greenblatt got his first real job in 1987 as a story editor in the feature division of Lorimar Filmed Entertainment. His boss at the time, Chernin, has been Greenblatt’s mentor from that day to this. After Chernin was hired to run the Fox network, Greenblatt started as a junior executive in drama at the fledgling network. Eventually rising to executive vp primetime programming, Greenblatt showed mainstream sensibility on Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place as well as Ally McBeal and The X-Files.
At Fox, Greenblatt met Janollari, then an executive in comedy and now head of programming at MTV. In 1997, Chernin set the two up in a producing partnership that had Six Feet Under as its greatest hit. “I’ve known him at least 20 years,” Janollari says of Greenblatt. “He’s one of the best executives in the business. … Any company would be lucky to have him.” And creative skills aside, Janollari says Greenblatt is “hilarious.” (Apart from wit manifested in conversations and e-mails, for years Greenblatt sent funny holiday cards featuring himself with his beloved black dog Newman, who passed away a few years ago.)
Again with Chernin’s encouragement, Greenblatt made the move to Showtime in 2003. One of his first major hits was Dexter. “He was very hungry for new stuff,” Goldwyn says. “The thing that was so impressive was the speed with which he moved. He read the book, optioned it, we got a script going and, very quickly, he ordered the pilot to production.”
Goldwyn also was impressed by Greenblatt’s level of engagement. Goldwyn has put in years as a studio executive — he was formerly president of Paramount, and could only marvel. “He’s an unbelievable manager of his time,” he says of Greenblatt. “He has laserlike attention to detail — from the concept to the treatment to the script to cast to a second and third cut — and we were just one show. I don’t know how he did it.”
On The Big C, Greenblatt not only suggested pursuing Linney but came up with the idea that her character, diagnosed with terminal cancer, should be a mother — to raise the stakes. On Nurse Jackie, Jackson says Greenblatt was — as usual — involved but always collaborative. “When we were testing [actors] for the pilot, he didn’t come in with preconceived ideas of what each character should be,” he says. “He came in open to discuss what the actors brought and what we wanted.”
Greenblatt may be open to ideas, but one former associate says “he’s very in control, very presidential — like the buck stops with me.” And though Greenblatt nurtures talent, another who has worked with him says he “can be prickly, very aggressive. He always invites hearty debate. And he can’t stand petulance. You have to have a reason to want what you want.” One who has worked with Greenblatt says he sometimes “yells” through “a lot of e-mails.” But he doesn’t alienate colleagues, the sources say, because he’s not throwing his weight around for the fun of it.
It was Greenblatt’s love for musical theater that led him to take a rare public spill last year after he fulfilled a long-held dream by producing the musical 9 to 5. Greenblatt had owned rights to the 1980 film, which starred Dolly Parton as an office worker who smites a sexist boss, since 2003. Launching the show was a gamble.
“I don’t think of myself as a risk-taker, I just thought: the theater — I fundamentally love it and have a great understanding of it, and I know my way around putting major entertainment pieces together,” he told the Los Angeles Times before the show opened in New York. “So I thought, ‘I’m going to surround myself by people who really know what they’re doing and then rely on my gut instincts.’ ”
Some of those people were high school classmates, including theater veteran Joe Mantello, who signed on to direct. Greenblatt’s attention to detail was such that he even personally researched whether it would be anachronistic for characters to high-five each other. (It wasn’t.)
Greenblatt had to raise the money — more than $10 million — to launch the show. He didn’t enjoy the process. And when the gimmick-packed production was plagued with technical glitches (and drew mixed reviews) during a September 2008 trial run in Los Angeles, Greenblatt acknowledged that the experience was “extremely mortifying.” No doubt he was hoping for better luck on Broadway, but New York Times critic Ben Brantley called 9 to 5 “an overinflated whoopee cushion,” “gaudy [and] empty.”
Hollywood gives Greenblatt a pass on this disappointment; in fact, his supporters give him credit for trying something new. “He made it happen,” says manager Richie Jackson, who mounted the play A Catered Affair with client Harvey Fierstein a couple of years ago. “I know how hard it is. Whether people liked it or not, whether it was successful at the box office, it was successful in that it went from his head to reality. He didn’t have to take that risk.”
NBC isn’t the only broadcast network looking to cable for talent: With the recent addition of Paul Lee at ABC, three of the big four will be run by executives who proved themselves by creating compelling cable programming. (The exception is CBS.)
Like Lee, Greenblatt will have to move faster and produce a lot more programming to fill a broadcast schedule. And the shows will need broad appeal. Showtime ratings won’t improve NBC’s fortunes and neither will quirky stories about serial killers, dope-selling moms and lesbian pals.
But Greenblatt never wanted to be pigeonholed as being a pony with one edgy trick and, given that he worked on shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place at Fox, he can make a convincing argument that he has experience with programming that plays in the heartland.
“The volume I think will be quite overwhelming for him,” a network television veteran says. And there’s the daunting challenge of pulling NBC out of the basement at a challenging time. “He’s going to have to be extraordinary at the job and also get lucky,” this executive says.
Greenblatt’s former partner Janollari is confident. “It’ll be a great challenge, and he’ll rise to the occasion,” he predicts.
At this point, of course, it’s impossible to say Greenblatt can come up with that elusive hit or two that will turn around the network’s fortunes. But whatever happens to his new shows, Greenblatt, at least, will be watched by a large and attentive audience.
A TASTE OF GREENBLATT’S TASTE
He did mainstream at Fox before overseeing these Showtime hits
DEXTER The show about a sympathetic serial killer embodies Showtime’s edgy vibe. It was Greenblatt’s idea to cast Michael C. Hall, who won a Golden Globe for the role.
WEEDS Mary-Louise Parker has earned three Emmy noms for her role as a marijuana-selling mom on the comedy, whose sixth season ended Nov. 15.
THE L WORD The Jennifer Beals starrer about a group of lesbians living and loving in L.A. was a five-time GLAAD Media Award nominee, winning once.
CALIFORNICATION David Duchovny won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of an emotionally unavailable novelist whose sexual appetites upend his life and career.
NURSE JACKIE Edie Falco chose to play the pill-popping, adulterous, ethically ambiguous ER nurse as her post-Sopranos gig and won an Emmy in the show’s first season.
UNITED STATES OF TARA Diablo Cody created the show about a housewife with multiple personality disorder that earned Toni Collette an Emmy for the lead role.