TCA 2012: Don't Worry About NBC Going Dumb (Analysis)

"Broad" doesn't mean "stupid," at least not in theory.

It’s rare that I walk out of a network’s executive session and not know what to do with the information that was gathered. But there I was Tuesday, stymied by what NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt had to say about the evolving nature of his network.

I heard what everyone else did -- and what they most likely wrote -- that NBC’s Thursday night comedies (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Office, Community) “do tend to be a little bit more narrow and a little bit more sophisticated than I think you might want for a real broad audience,” Greenblatt said.

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Given the slate of much broader NBC comedies in front of us at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, you couldn’t help thinking Greenblatt was going to club the cult hits like baby seals and the critical darlings would die in our hands.

So I went back and reread the transcript and tried to make sure we weren’t parsing out the jaw-dropping comments like that while overlooking some of the more elaborate explanations of NBC's necessary transformation under Greenblatt’s guidance.

Here’s why I wanted to look and look again – because it didn’t seem like something Greenblatt would want to do. Going back to his days at Showtime, he didn’t seem like someone who would give up on quality for the sake of ratings, which is what all of the shorthand seemed to suggest. Let’s face it, the takeaway from Tuesday’s executive session was that NBC was giving up on sophisticated comedies – comedies that earned a ton of acclaim and, more important, a pile of Emmys – in favor of a sitcom about animals and the not exactly revolutionary concept of men taking care of their own babies, among other dubiously broad ideas.

There were certainly some caveats and hints and verbal gymnastics in the transcript that didn’t make for the great and startling soundbite of “a little bit more sophisticated than I think you might want for a real broad audience,” but they were there.

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So perhaps what we have here, extending the benefit of the doubt to a man who masterfully turned around Showtime and made it a true rival to HBO, is a case of formal semantics vs. conceptual semantics. That is, the words used definitely implied what people seemed to fear – that NBC was going to dumb things down in a real hurry. But the unsexy qualifiers that were left out also suggested that Greenblatt was thinking of something more complex – and that is a middle ground where comedy can be broadly appealing while also smart as opposed to a sophisticated lock-box of cleverness that appeals to a niche audience and thus keeps NBC in the basement.

“We’re in this transition where I hope these new shows that we’ve got for the fall and the spring are also clever and also smart and that you critics like them but can also broaden the size of the audience,” Greenblatt said.

Do you see what he did there? He said “broaden the size of the audience,” not “we want a monkey throwing poop at the camera.”

Greenblatt also stressed again that these were small steps and that change would come over time. I think what he means is that the new comedies need to pop in the fall to jump-start the network (because new viewers just don’t come to aging, existing series) which is both accurate and prudent. But that’s the conceptual semantics part being a lot less headline-worthy than all the formal semantics of implying that existing shows might be too smart for the average bear.

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I think part of the problem here is simply the disconnect of Greenblatt at NBC. His history at Showtime seems to be coloring the expectations of what he would (or should) do at NBC. It could be that people were expecting more shows like Community.  As if the pay-cable ethos could somehow be miraculously and easily laid over the Big Tent needs of NBC and broadcast television.

I’m not sure that’s possible. And I’m also not sure that’s ever been what Greenblatt himself was planning. Looking back at his first in-depth interview after taking the job – an interview he did with The Hollywood Reporter in 2011 – Greenblatt was asked what was not on the network that needed to be. His answer: “Without insulting the shows that have come before and not lasted, I just think we have to make better shows -- scripted comedies, scripted dramas, reality shows.”

And he expanded on that when asked about NBC’s brand – a question that’s still entirely relevant since he’s all but stated that critically acclaimed, low-rated series can’t be the brand.

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“I would like to revive the brand that used to exist, which is innovative, fresh, bold, original, upscale and groundbreaking at times. Look at ER, Seinfeld or even Friends. You go back across the years and the shows were always trying something new and yet being broad. I’m a firm believer in moving around until you find exactly what the brand is supposed to be. That’s part of what takes time. You kind of have to muck around in it, which doesn’t sound very strategic or intelligent but it’s impossible to say, 'Here’s what our brand is, let’s develop to it and let’s get these hits on,' because that’s not going to work. You need a sense of where you’re going, cover all your bases and then your brand will help dictate what it should be. Very unscientific but it works.”

As you can see, he wanted “broad” from the get-go. And he clearly doesn’t mean dumb – he means accessible.

Given that NBC is in turnaround, I’m willing to see how it all plays out without immediately thinking every new show is inherently idiotic and will stay that way. They might. And they might get canceled. It's just part of the evolution, not the new decree. Stay calm, people.

Twitter: @BastardMachine