NBC Chiefs on Abortion Controversy, Emmy Snubs and 'Community's' New Home

Bob Greenblatt Jennifer Salke Paul Telegdy at TCA H - 2012

Bob Greenblatt was on hand Sunday for his much-deserved victory lap.

Having just wrapped the television season atop his rivals in the all-important 18-49 demo for the first time in a decade — thanks to a schedule that includes The Voice, The Blacklist and Sunday Night Football — the network chairman trotted out on stage at the Television Critics Association press tour with renewed energy. Flashing on screens that flanked the Beverly Hilton stage were bold declarations, including "NBC's resurgence is just beginning", as clips from the network's portfolio accompanied them.

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Before facing a deluge of questions, Greenblatt stood at the podium to rattle off a string of impressive statistics, including 27 percent growth in total viewers, an additional $300 million in upfront gains and big wins in late night, where Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show regularly trounces its rivals. Though NBC won't have an Olympics assist this coming season, the net is poised to benefit significantly from the Super Bowl ratings boost in February.

Joined by his entertainment president Jennifer Salke and reality chief Paul Telegdy, the trio fielded questions about broadcast's challenges, the controversy still swirling around a rejected Obvious Child ad and Community's move to Yahoo.

Hey Bob, Fox could use your advice.

With Fox expected to announce its new chief — or in this case, chiefs — as early as this week, Greenblatt was asked to offer advice for turning around a ratings-challenged network, as he's done over the past three and a half years at NBC. He had a few pieces of wisdom to share. "You have to love the medium," he noted first, adding, "If you don't really want to be in the broadcast medium, you shouldn't be. Also key: an appetite and an ability to be in the volume business, as the job requires producing some 20 shows at any given time. The volume is the killer. If you're doing two shows a year, you can handcraft them. But when you're doing 15 or 20 shows a year, the volume just gets away from you." And the last piece, he concluded, was: "Hiring good people not only to work on your programs but also to work in your executive ranks, and having the kind of management that offers support and latitude in the way Greenblatt insists NBCU CEO Steve Burke does."

Just how pissed were you on Emmy morning?

Greenblatt was not shy about his frustrations surrounding cable's continued domination come Emmy time, using the TCA platform to express his dismay about the lack of love for The Blacklist and its star James Spader. "Despite the fact that we tell ourselves it doesn't matter, we of course want that validation," he said, adding: "Cable has the advantage of doing shows that are darker, more interesting and that to some extant feel cooler than what we can do." The latter gave way to a larger conversation about the challenges a network like NBC faces when it comes to producing cableworthy fare, as it does with critically beloved Hannibal. Put simply: Not enough viewers come. "Hannibal is one of the best shows we have creatively. I don't know why 5 million or 8 million won't watch Hannibal on a broadcast network," he continued, noting that that the "minute you try to do something that is dark and subversive, you start to peel away the mass audience."

Tell us what really happened with that Obvious Child ad.

With the controversy over NBC's rejection of a digital ad for the film Obvious Child, which had the word "abortion" in it, still reverberating, thanks in part to a Planned Parenthood petition signed by female pop culture celebrities including Lena Dunham and DJ Samantha Ronson, Greenblatt suggested the network does not have an "iron-clad policy" about the word itself. That said, he acknowledged that he was not part of the internal discussion about the ad, which was among three submitted to the digital sales team. Clarifying, he added from the stage: "The sales group chose the path of least resistance. They chose the ad that did not have [the word abortion in] it."

So, how does that translate to programming?

While the entertainment industry had made progress in dealing with a perennially divisive issue – NBC's Friday Night Lights and Parenthood have both dealt with abortion — Greenblatt says it's still a topic that draws controversy. "I don't know that it's been off-limits, but I think it's one of those hot-button issues that people are still afraid of for obvious reasons," he said. He went on to recount a struggle he was involved with while he was an executive at Fox, when writers of the network's popular 1990's drama Party of Five came up with a storyline that had Neve Campbell's character deciding to have an abortion. "It was a real fight internally whether or not we could tell that story, and she lost the baby sort of on the way to get the abortion," Greenblatt continued, putting air quotes around the word lost. "I thought [that was] a real cop-out. And that was 20 years ago. I don't think we cop out like that anymore. But I still think writers and producers are nervous about it because it really does divide people."

Dan Harmon's getting the last laugh, huh?

Speaking with reporters after his session, Greenblatt suggest he, too, was happy to see Harmon's ratings-challenged cult hit Community land on Yahoo, since NBC's studio is a co-owner with Sony on the show. "Yahoo is in a different business than we are, trying to build their platform, and they made an extraordinary deal. We're the co-owners of that show and we're going to make money on it right away, which wouldn't have been the case if it had been on the network for another year," he said, noting that he feels "great" about his decision not to keep the ratings-challenged series on his network. "It just didn't make sense for us to have another season of it at that level of audience. I don't know if we'll ever know how many people watch it on Yahoo. I'm curious to see if they can get a bigger audience than we did."

How nervous are you about the CBS' Thursday night football play?

NBC's producers and stars may be concerned that CBS' big Thursday Night Football play will crush the peacock net's lineup this fall, but Greenblatt suggests he's not. Or at least he sees a silver lining in the move: His new comedies won't have to come out of the gate competing against CBS' comedy behemoth The Big Bang Theory, which finished last season as the top scripted entry. "I think it gives us a little opening for those comedies [Bad Judge and A to Z]," he said of his new entrants, acknowledging the challenges NBC's Thursday night comedy efforts, including The Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Saves the World, have faced of late. What's more, he doesn't expect CBS' Thursday night games to immediately rival the juggernaut status of his net's Sunday Night Football. "I'm hoping that those Thursday games are going to take a long time to take root," he added. "We know football is potent, but I don't think you're going to see the kind of ratings that we see on Sunday night."

Guess it's not all bad news for NBC's comedy department, is it?

CBS' next-morning report had Extant proving this summer's biggest scripted bow, but Greenblatt revealed that the network spoke to soon. Once the official numbers came in later in the week, Extant fell slightly, putting it on par with NBC's surprise — and recently renewed — breakout The Night Shift. And unlike the heavily touted Halle Berry vehicle, Night Shift lacked big stars or a hefty promotional campaign. Its ability to connect with audiences has been reassuring to Greenblatt, who admits broadcast nets used to throw on lesser fare during the summer months. No longer. In fact, he and Salke suggested that the network's Bill Cosby sitcom could find itself landing on NBC's late-summer schedule in 2015.

But that's not to say NBC has comedy all figured out.

Salke called the demise of The Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Saves the World "heartbreaking," with Greenblatt noting that he had hoped that the series' stars — Fox and Sean Hayes, respectively — would have helped the network cut through on a particularly challenged night (Thursdays) for NBC. That neither did is a revealing, if frustrating, commentary on the state of the competitive marketplace. Looking ahead, NBC is making a bet that audiences are eager for romantic comedies, a genre that hasn't had a heavy presence on network schedules of late, with freshman efforts including A to Z and Marry Me. Both execs added that the network will continue to try to lure producers back to the broader, cheaper and considerably less sexy multicamera comedy genre too.

Hey Paul, what's happening on the unscripted front.

NBC kicked off the panel by renewing a trio of unscripted shows — Last Comic Standing, America's Got Talent and America Ninja Warrior — but that didn't stop the press from inquiring about the future of others. Telegdy confirmed that while a new season of Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice has been produced, they have not yet given it a spot on the network's schedule. As for the future of a Maya Rudolph variety show, Telegdy and Greenblatt noted how pleased they were with the results of the May special and that they would like to try to find a way to do more. What they have yet to determine is the format, which could be either specials or a weekly series.