Unsolicited Advice for Greenblatt
New NBC Entertainment president can tackle TV’s biggest challenge.
If NBC’s new entertainment president, Robert Greenblatt, hasn’t already seen The Thin Red Line, he ought to rent it and pay particular attention to Sean Penn’s jaded soldier, who says to a newbie, “What difference do you think you can make — one man in all this madness?”
Of course, running a broadcast network isn’t like being in a war — unless the one you’re running is NBC. There must be something in Greenblatt’s DNA that makes him want to take on problems others consider disastrously unsolvable because the challenge ahead as he seeks to reverse NBC’s long, sad decline is enormous.
He’s got a fourth-place network in a five-network race (assuming you consider the CW a network). NBC has been the butt of more jokes than the past three presidents combined. There appears to be no plan, and the brand has been diluted to the point where the cable components of the NBC Universal deal Comcast bought into were considered the real gems. And there is, unquestionably, institutional morass.
That said, Greenblatt reversed Showtime’s fortunes impressively and quickly. He had a vision for the pay cable channel — steering it away from original movies and toward original series — but that was the easy part. What merits praise is the way he went about it: landing big stars to practice their craft in ambitious, risk-taking premises. Greenblatt now turns his attention to the ultimate reclamation project. There are any number of reasons NBC was a risky choice, but there’s certainly one great reason to take it on: If he succeeds, he’s going to be the king of the television industry. Nobody has truly stepped up to take the crown from Les Moonves at CBS, the last person who won a revolution.
1. Evaluate the infrastructure.
Sounds boring, but you can’t underestimate the damage the Jeff Zucker Era had on the Peacock, even when he wasn’t entertainment president. From orchestrating the Kevin Reilly ouster and the Ben Silverman coronation to taking scripted off of 10 p.m. to the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien debacle, his dirty fingerprints are everywhere. And the people who were doing his bidding — if they haven’t been dumped already — need to be evaluated. Somebody let Harry’s Law onto the schedule. A collection of people are responsible for one of the most buzz-free schedules in years. Were they working in fear? Or do they really have taste and a sense of quality?
2. Reach out to the creative community (again) and tell them you want their best work to reinvigorate the brand.
Greenblatt has already proved that he’s quite adept at this. The difference is that artistic ambition doesn’t always result in hits. Which brings us to the next area.
3. Find the balance between running what amounts to a boutique cable channel and the Walmart of big-tent entities, a broadcast network.
That means getting name stars, creators and writers involved so that The Biggest Loser isn’t the only thing you can brag about, but at the same time understanding that what they produce might not get half of Loser’s ratings. Getting the balance right is more magic than science, and any number of quality executives — from Peter Liguori to Doug Herzog to Peter Roth — have had trouble. Reilly, at Fox, has probably had the best luck in that area, and the jury will be out during Paul Lee’s tenure at ABC as well.
4. Define the brand.
Do people really think of NBC as the home of upscale single people who live in cities? What’s the identity here? Such big-eyed flops as The Event and The Cape? Aging franchises like Law & Order? Cult comedies? Spark-free reality series? It’s nice that Parenthood is still being given a chance, to say nothing of Chuck or much of the Thursday-night lineup, but at some point you need series that define the brand in other ways than “supporting the underachievers.”
5. Make haste.
True, NBC won’t show Greenblatt’s stamp until next fall, or maybe even midseason. But that comes along awfully fast, and he’ll have to do his best to sell talented people that NBC is going to turn around. There are real questions about seminal shows: the Law & Order franchise, The Office, Dateline, The Apprentice. The people who love the Thursday comedies might also love them on another night, freeing him up to make some money on Thursdays. And Sundays, wow — that’s a dirty garage.
But hey, he took the job. It’s time to push the rock. And, sincerely, good luck with that.