NBC Chief Tackles Bill Cosby, Live Musicals and Comedy Woes

"When that many people come out and have similar complaints and it becomes such a tainted situation, there was no way that we could move forward with it," Bob Greenblatt said of pulling the Cosby comedy.
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Robert Greenblatt

"We're developing a comedy with Bill Cosby and a miniseries with Hillary Clinton," NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt joked from stage.

The tongue-in-cheek reminders of announcements he'd made at previous gatherings of the Television Critics Association — and then had to scrap with much fanfare — preceded a series of considerably less controversial moves, including a batch of Dolly Parton movies, a behind-the-scenes-of-a-telenovela comedy starring Eva Longoria and a Stevie Wonder-produced miniseries set against the backdrop of the underground railroad.

Read more Dolly Parton to Be Center of NBC Movie Series

But it didn't take long for the roomful of reporters to turn their attention back to Cosby, a subject that thrust Greenblatt — whose network is coming off another fall at No. 1 — into the hot seat as he was asked more than once to break down how and when he decided that the controversy swirling around his would-be star made it worth pulling the plug.

"While over the years we heard some of those accusations and we knew there were a couple of settlements and whatnot, it didn't seem to be the kind of thing that was critical mass," he said, noting that that changed when "15 women" came forward with accusations. "Look, he hasn't been proven guilty of anything, so I don't want to be the one that says, 'Guilty until proven innocent.' But when that many people come out and have similar complaints and it becomes such a tainted situation, there was no way that we could move forward with it." At that point in time, NBC didn't have so much as a script, making the decision that much easier to make.

Read more NBC Developing Underground Railroad Miniseries and Musical With Stevie Wonder

When one reporter pressed him on the change of heart — this idea that he knew that there had been a couple of women who had come forward years earlier when he bought the comedy project, but opted to drop it when the number of women multiplied more recently — Greenblatt grew exasperated. "You want me to put a number on it? 15 [women coming forward] yes, two no. You really want me to answer that question?" he said sarcastically, adding: "All I can tell you is that there are a lot of people who have been in business with Cosby for 25 years — go ask them the same question. I just answered what I could answer. I didn't think it was a problem until it became critical. I don't know what else I can say about it."

In addition to noting that it was "safe to say" NBC would never work with Cosby again, here are the other highlights from Friday's half-hour panel featuring Greenblatt and his entertainment president Jennifer Salke.

Comedy Drought

"I'm here to tell you, we're really challenged by the comedy brand that we're trying to build on this network," Greenblatt said, winning points for his honesty as he added: "It's been a couple of years of trial and error." The latest misfires include A to Z, which he praised, and Bad Judge. Still, he and Salke both said that they had no intentions of giving up on the genre, even noting that they would keep experimenting with different ways to tackle it. Among the latter: more multicam projects, a live comedy and even a limited-run comedy that could attract bigger stars on screen and off.

Read more Eva Longoria to Star in NBC 'Telenovela' Miniseries

Must-See Thursdays

Greenblatt is well aware that his decision to move drama juggernaut The Blacklist to Thursdays is a big risk. But it's also "necessary," he said, acknowledging how challenged his Thursday night comedy lineup has become. Letting the latter continue to languish with low-rated half-hours was no longer an option, he explained, particularly given how valuable the night is to advertisers looking to peddle products heading into the weekend. "Putting comedies that we love there to fail felt like the definition of insanity," said Salke, with Greenblatt noting of Blacklist's move: "The only way to reinvigorate [the night] is to jumpstart it, [so] we're trying to create a new night of high-quality drama that hopefully brings an audience." He reiterated seconds later that this is a long-term play, and he doesn't expect Blacklist, which will square off against ABC's Scandal post Super Bowl, to gain a bigger real-time audience in the move.

Keep On Singing

NBC execs haven't decided whether next year's holiday live musical will be The Wiz or Music Man, but Greenblatt did confirm from stage that he'd optioned both. Later in the panel, he was asked about the decision to schedule his family-friendly 2014 entry, Peter Pan, on a school night (Thursday), to which he explained he was light on other options. Both Friday and Saturday nights are historically tough nights to draw an audience that makes financial sense for a project of that scale, and his network is locked in to its NFL ratings behemoth on Sunday nights. Though he suggested nobody would believe him, he claimed he never expected the ratings for Peter Pan to be anywhere as big as those for mega-hit The Sound of Music a year earlier.

Nielsen Woes

Greenblatt and Salke had no opportunity to take any sort of Nielsen victory lap, despite the fact that the network has gone from last to first under their watch. Instead, they were asked about ratings struggles that they've long had with Parenthood, a critical darling that will end its run early this year, as well as the more recent ones they've suffered with Katherine Heigl's State of Affairs. One potential explanation for the former's ratings woes, according to Salke, is the family drama genre's lack of urgency, though both she and Greenblatt classified themselves as "obsessive" fans of the show and praised the caliber of the writing and acting involved. As for State of Affairs, which had been a strong performer with a Voice lead-in but has experienced a significant and worrisome slide without it, Greenblatt acknowledged he was "disappointed." He added: "I think it's a really fine show and I'm scratching my head about why we can't get more people to it."