Jennifer Salke on Rebuilding NBC, 'Hannibal' and Courting Michael J. Fox

Jennifer Salke Executive Suite - H 2012

Jennifer Salke Executive Suite - H 2012

NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke held court Thursday at a Paley Center for Media breakfast where she stressed NBC's commitment to year-round original programming, quality showrunners and trumped new series from Michael J. Fox and Blair Underwood.

Here are a few of the highlights from the morning session:

On the year-round push:
Salke noted that with the increased push for year-round original scripted programming, there is no downtime anymore as the development cycle stars all over again almost immediately after the upfronts in May. "I think this is the most daunting time -- about a month from now -- where it settles in that you have this money to spend and this agenda to create hit television," she said. "To be in these jobs, you have to be a believer that it's possible … that if you build it, they will come." 

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On keeping the lights on during the summer:
Salke confessed NBC (and the rest of the broadcast networks) have traditionally given the summer away to cable. She cited Hannibal and America's Got Talent as NBC's efforts to increase its performance during the traditionally low-rated season. "I don't see why shows like Hannibal and America's Got Talent and some of these shows we're trying to launch that are high quality wouldn't do better than throwing on some cheap programming," she told the intimate Paley Center crowd of fare including dramedy Camp and faux-reality-series drama Siberia. "Cheap and good don't have to be mutually exclusive anymore."

On rebuilding NBC:
Following a season where the network finished third in the key adults 18-49 demo (down 4 percent) and fourth in total viewers (down 6 percent) and flatlined without The Voice, Salke said NBC can't afford be rigid about its brand. "We're going to do things that are creatively adventurous," she revealed, stressing that it places big swings in the hands of pedigreed showrunners. "We're open to anything -- we should hear everything and be open to hear any kind of inspiration that comes in the door," Salke said, using Glee and Modern Family -- which she helped develop during her tenure at 20th Television -- as examples of passionate showrunners with a clear vision and inspiration. "The primary focus for me is to get in there and turn that place around," she said of her position at studio Universal Television. "They won't wait five years; we've got to start seeing some success in the next two years. We need that pipeline at the studio because the spigot with [Universal TV's] House … has really shut off and we have to rebuild that."

On the appeal of Michael J. Fox:
NBC handed out a 22-episode straight-to-series order for The Michael J. Fox Show sight unseen, helping to lure the in-demand former Family Ties star with food. "When he came in, he was funny, talking about his family and life and said, 'My life is like mashed potatoes,' " Salke recalled. "He told a story of how he walks outside the door and how the world puts him on this pedestal. He'd been in a dark period, had been annoying [his family] and fighting with his kids and was just a regular dad. Everyone was wooing him and we found his favorite restaurant and sent him lobster mashed potatoes and he closed the deal." The appeal of the show, she said, was that it's a funny, accessible family show with a bit of an edge -- generated from his personal struggles. "His passion to commit the next seven years of his life on a TV show was really inspirational. He had us at hello."  

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On renewing Hannibal:
NBC renewed Bryan Fuller's critically acclaimed Hannibal for a second season despite its lackluster ratings on Thursdays thanks largely to its rabid fan base and pedigree. "Would it be a smart move to take a show that represents quality and chop it off at the knees? I didn't feel like that would be a great decision and it would also affect the kind of talent we attract to the network," Salke said of the series, which stars Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen.

On the appeals and woes of multiplatform:
Salke noted that NBC sent out screeners and began promoting its new shows five to six weeks earlier than last year -- almost immediately after the upfronts -- in a bid to get out in front and build buzz for its digital platform. "We're trying to create buzz about shows that are quality and take that into the whole 'How do you enhance an audience with a second screen?' [dilemma]." She again cited Hannibal and its big online push ahead of its premiere as a method to boost awareness and ultimately viewership. "It's a show with critical acclaim and … a rabid fan base, and we do a lot of online activity, and yet the ratings lie there like a cat on a rug," Salke said of the dual-screen dilemma. "If you have something great, people latch on to it, and it will naturally evolve into all those places -- and if you don't, it won't."

On remaking Ironside:
Salke called the Blair Underwood starrer -- a remake of NBC's Raymond Burr drama that ran for eight seasons in the late 1960s and early '70s -- "the little engine that could" and an example of wanting to be in the procedural business. Despite the near-immediate rejection of NBC's Prime Suspect remake -- aka the show with Maria Bello's hat -- Salke noted the network wanted to approach procedurals in a different way in a bid to stand out and hopefully compete with CBS. "In the world of prodceurals, even aging procedurals are doing better than some of the big things we were excited about -- so why can't this do well? There's no reason why it couldn't. We needed closed-ended shows and having some procedurals on the schedule is a strategy I really agree with," she said, sharing that Underwood was so committed to the role that he rode around in a wheelchair two months before filming the pilot.

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