NBC Chief Bob Greenblatt: 'There's Still Room for Improvement'

Greenblatt was joined by execs Jennifer Salke and Paul Telegdy during the TCA press tour to discuss ratings, Emmys, late night and ongoing disappointment.
Jennifer Salke, Bob Greenblatt and Paul Telegdy

“There’s still room for improvement.”

To hear NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt tell it, it's not only a theme in his own life -- his father used to utter those lines when a young Greenblatt would bring home a report card featuring several A’s and a solo B+ -- but also the mantra of his network.

Greenblatt used his Television Critics Association platform Saturday morning to hammer home a simple message: NBC -- once a media punching bag care of sagging ratings and programming missteps -- has shown "real progress" over the last year. Relying on a string of Power Point slides to back him up, Greenblatt noted that his network was flat while his rivals’ were all down in the ratings.

“At this point in our business, flat is the new up,” he quipped to laughs in the Beverly Hilton ballroom, adding that NBC rounded out the season within one-tenth of a ratings point of No. 2 and fourth-tenths away from No. 1. On at least two occasions during his half-hour or so before the assembled press, he mentioned that broadcast networks tend to shed between 4 and 7 percent of their viewership from year to year.

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Greenblatt, who rightfully acknowledges that his work at NBC is far from done, was joined onstage by the net's entertainment president Jennifer Salke and alternative and late night chief Paul Telegdy. The trio fielded a barrage of questions focused on such things as the late-night shakeup, broadcast drama’s Emmy shutout and the disappointment of this year’s comedy crop. Here are the highlights.

The Late-Night Switch-A-Roo

Jay Leno may be on his way out at The Tonight Show, but Greenblatt insists he is very hopeful that the veteran late-night ratings champ stays in the NBC fold, much as Bob Hope once did. In fact, he hinted at a couple of potential opportunities that his team and Leno were currently discussing at the network, but declined to go into too much detail . As for the decision to push him out early next year, Greenblatt acknowledged that he has been having conversations about a late-night transition ever since he took the gig in early 2011. Doing so with the winter Olympics as a launch platform for Jimmy Fallon was a once-every-four-year opportunity that he believed was too good to pass up. 

No Laughing Matter

“Comedy is frustrating,” noted Greenblatt, when pressed on the disappointing track record for the network’s freshman crop of half-hours, including The New Normal and Go On. Like her boss, Salke added that the time available to nurture a show has grown shorter and shorter, forcing her and her team to have to make difficult decisions far earlier than they would like. Of New Normal’s early demise, Greenblatt said that he has no regrets about airing the series, about a gay couple having a baby via a surrogate, when he did. “I don’t believe it didn’t work because it had gay characters in it. We think the country is moving in the right direction; the Supreme Court made the right decision,” he said, adding: “It may have been slightly ahead of its time.” Neither he nor Salke are at all concerned about embracing another gay storyline on upcoming comedy Sean Saves the World, noting that this show isn’t as “issue-oriented” as the Ryan Murphy half-hour.

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Where is the Love?

“The bastard child is now broadcast television,” Greenblatt said of a belief that he feels has permeated the industry, which was reflected in the Emmy nominations earlier this month when broadcast was shut out of the drama category. He added: "I just wish we could get credit for the good work that we do." Parenthood, for instance, is a series that he argues is deserving of Emmy attention, noting that the ensemble drama's heartbreaking cancer storyline this past season was particularly strong. He also used the opportunity to defend the larger broadcast genre. Like his peers at other broadcast nets, he said that the cable “hits” that tend to generate outsized ink -- think HBO’s Girls -- would be canceled on a broadcast network. AMC’s red-hot Walking Dead, he argues, is the “anomaly.”

Events, Events, Events

Greenblatt was not shy about his desire to be in the “events” business in a major way, whether that be through sporting events, late-night shows, specials or high-profile series (think Michael J. Fox return to comedy). In his bid to “fight the DVR,” those events will also include a growing cadre of limited series and miniseries, which the net recently poached ABC’s Quinn Taylor to oversee. Greenblatt used the TCA platform to announce four new projects in that space, including a four-hour Hillary Clinton mini starring Diane Lane (former president Bill Clinton has not yet been cast) as well as a Rosemary’s Baby remake, an adaptation of Stephen King’s Tommyknockers and Plymouth from Mark Burnett. They will join a Cleopatra project as well as Burnett’s follow-up to The Bible, among others.

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Trump Will Be Trump

Telegdy is not ready to announce another season of The Donald’s reality show, Celebrity Apprentice, but he suggested that that decision will be made with ratings -- and not Trump’s outspoken persona -- in mind. And while the reality honcho acknowledged that this country is built on “free speech,” he claimed Trump’s opinions didn’t reflect those of the executives seated with him on the morning's panel, adding: “He’s in the business of creating his own headlines.”

Saturday Night Live Will Live On

Was Greenblatt pleased with the latest talent exodus -- Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen and, soon, Seth Meyers -- at NBC’s long-running sketch show? Absolutely not, he acknowledged. Still, he is realistic. "SNL goes through these upheavals every year to some degree and every few years to a larger degree," he said, adding: "Lorne [Michaels has] been doing this for 38 years now, [and there is nobody better at] combing this country and finding the next generation of these actors than [he is.]" He noted that Michaels, who will also add The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon to his already full plate early next year, has already hunkered down and is doing the job.