NBC's Bob Greenblatt Talks Musicals, Michael J. Fox, Jay Leno's Future (Q&A)

Robert Greenblatt | NBC

The upfront will mark NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt's debut as the face of the troubled network. Look for him to acknowledge the Peacock's ratings struggles and push a "rebuilding" theme.

There is cause for optimism within the halls of NBC.

The network is wrapping up its second consecutive fall season at No. 1 among the coveted 18-49 set -- and unlike a year ago, NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt is poised for a stronger midseason care of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Though it's the The Voice and Sunday Night Football that continue to drive the network’s ratings, freshman entry The Blacklist has proven to be as robust a launch as NBC has seen in years. The James Spader procedural is the No. 1 new series and the No. 1 broadcast drama, and it also has been renewed for a second season.

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Greenblatt, riding high on the success of his Dec. 5 live event The Sound of Music, which lured 18.6 million viewers, spoke to THR about a musical follow-up; his high-profile, low-performing Michael J. Fox experiment; and what’s next for departing late-night host Jay Leno.

Sound of Music hit big, and you've said you will do another one next year. Where are you with a follow-up?

I don't think we can do this too many times. I don't think there are that many shows that fit the perfect sweet spot of what we did [with Sound of Music]. That said, I think we can do it next year and if we're successful again next year, I think we could do it again. But I don't think it's going to be an annual thing for the next 10 years. What did we learn from it? We learned that the key is [that it is] a family event that also dovetails with the feeling you get at the beginning of the holiday season. Whether this could have been done in October or March, I'm not sure. The magic of the holiday, the family coming together and the spirit of the event is what works.

We're looking for another show, a well-known title, something that people already know and love that can interest kids and adults and can be produced live, which is no small feat. Then, if we get the right show and the right cast, the one thing I know we can do -- and what this company has shown again and again -- we can marshal the forces of NBCUniversal and Comcast in a way that nobody else can. That was really the secret of making this so big. I think we have all that going for us if we pick the right show and schedule it right in the middle of all of our holiday specials, which this year all over-delivered, from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade to the tree-lighting -- everything we had the week or 10 days before the show, including Blacklist and The Voice, was firing on all cylinders. It gave us the ability to push, push, push and the message got through in a major way.

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What potential musicals would you look to next? Are there any defining characteristics within that world that are appealing?

We've narrowed it down to about three titles. [Editor's note: Greenblatt declines to name them.] They all have complicated rights issues and I don't know if we're going to be able to get them. In the next couple of weeks -- we want to do this quickly -- we'll zero in on something because we have to produce it. We now have less than a year. When we did Sound of Music, we literally spent 18 months on it and had a lot to learn. We also learned a lot and I think we don't have as big of a learning curve for next time.

Is it something Carrie Underwood would do again with you?

Maybe, [though] I think it will be a whole different thing.

How do you monetize a musical event like Sound of Music?

There's a lot of potential upside from this. There's enormous [upside] right there with advertising revenue. I'm happy to say Walmart was our partner and they were in from the beginning. They want to do it again with us, so you get that benefit right off the bat. There are also other ancillaries: We have a CD that has been released that we share some of the revenue with Sony and Carrie Underwood. We have a DVD that we own. Even in a declining DVD market, this is one of those rare things where you go, "I loved this movie, let's buy it." I'm hopeful that will give us some added revenue. There's international, too. We now have a film that we can sell. We're also repeating it on Saturday. We own it so we can repeat it every year for the next 10 years. Even if it does just a small fraction of what it did, it's free to repeat it. That's all upside and if you chart it all out, in 10 years, there's millions of dollars there.

It really becomes a business if all of those things work for you. I don't want to get ahead of myself; we'll do another one of these and see how it goes. I think we can produce the next one more efficiently than we did the first one. Everything can get more refined and smarter. I don't know if we'll have the same huge audience the second time around because usually the [first ones] are the big ones.

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What are your expectations for The Blacklist in January without The Voice?

Last year, everybody was entranced by the fact that the wheels came off in January, but that was something we expected was going to happen. This year, there are a lot of differences. The Olympics come right in the first quarter. January is such a fallow period. The Blacklist isn't going away. It's going to be very interesting and telling for us to see how that does without The Voice lead-in. The signs are really positive. The show has been doing extraordinarily well on the air in the time period. It's hugely time-shifted, and it's also becoming more independent from the lead-in. Those are good signs. The Biggest Loser expands to two hours in January, which has been doing nicely on Tuesday. The Voice will be off for a little while but I think we're going to be OK in January. Then The Voice is right back on in late February along with four new series and a lot of promotion from the Olympics, which will help all of that.

Heading into pilot season, how are you thinking about what you want to do in the comedy space?

It's up for grabs. Unfortunately, it is so psychologically entrenched in people's minds in terms of historically what Thursday night was [for NBC]. And it hasn't been [must-see-TV] for a number of years. It still has this hold on people, or at least the press. It needs to be reinvented, and I don't know if that means less comedy or better comedy or more comedy or no comedy. But we're talking about all different kinds of approaches.

Do you stay committed to two hours of comedy on Thursday nights?

That is a good question that does not have an answer yet. The Office was the one bright spot that kept [our Thursday comedy block] afloat. Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and Community are all beloved by the press and are really strong creatively but [in the near-decade since NBC's Thursday reigned] CBS got in there with comedies and ABC got in there with dramas in a major way. It not only became the problem of decline with NBC's shows that weren't being replaced [by ratings hits], but the other networks got so much stronger and that's where we are right now. Our lead-ins aren't strong enough, so the 9 p.m. shows aren't going to really have a chance. I'm trying to be thoughtful and slow about making decisions about pulling off shows because they're underperforming. There are a lot of reasons why Thursday is a challenge and I'm trying to separate that from the quality of the shows. If CBS had never stuck with Everybody Loves Raymond … it would have been gone.

Any regrets about The Michael J. Fox Show?

It's certainly what I hoped for [creatively] because I love the show but I would have hoped for a larger audience (laughs). It's a function of all the things we were just talking about. I also think that there's a learning curve on any new show and I see every episode and it gets better and stronger and more assured of why those characters are funny. We just did an episode where Michael goes to Sochi to cover the Olympics, which is a really funny episode of television. It could air during the Olympics or right after. The show is doing what it should do, which is get better and better.

Jay Leno is done in early February, and he'll be in demand. What kind of conversations, if any, have you had with him about staying at NBC? 

I've made it clear to him and all of his reps that we'd love him to stay. He's been very focused on the final months of the show and has said he's not going to make any decisions about his post-Tonight Show life until after the show. But nothing would make me happier than to find ways to keep him involved with this network. That's really up to him. 

Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com
Twitter: @LaceyVRose