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This story first appeared in the Nov. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Desperate to dig NBC out of the ratings cellar it has occupied for seven consecutive seasons, entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt is employing a simple strategy: Spend big.
The network is on track to shell out more this development season than ever before and to outspend its rivals. The script and penalty portion of the annual buying season traditionally sets the major networks back a little more than $30 million, but sources at NBC tell THR that the network’s outlay this summer and fall is closer to $40 million. Factor in pilots, and the nets invest about $100 million — and that’s before a single show is ordered to series. (Development season is not yet over and ABC is said to be coughing up fat sums as well.)
Rivals have quietly criticized NBC, along with ABC — another ratings-challenged network with a relatively new chief, Paul Lee — for jacking up prices by bidding on so much product this season, according to sources. Some of the projects attracting NBC’s attention have even irked cable executives because Greenblatt is believed to be infringing on their territory.
All of it is a dramatic shift from the Jeff Zucker era at NBC, when expensive scripted fare was perceived to be a necessary evil amid newsmagazines, reality competitions and the Jay Leno 10 p.m. experiment. Says one NBC insider, “There were years when we ordered 70 scripts; this year, we’ll probably have 70 in each genre.”
What’s more, Greenblatt has been particularly aggressive with his purchases, committing to more penalties than NBC has done in many years — if ever. Similarly, he’s been willing to make strong talent commitments when needed, as evidenced by his moves to lock down Sarah Silverman, Sean Hayes and Roseanne Barr, among other hot commodities.
The push comes as Greenblatt, the former Showtime chief who started the job at Comcast-owned NBC in January, looks to put his stamp on the increasingly brandless network. Among the shrewder moves he made heading into the fall was to lower the industry’s expectations about how quickly he can turn things around. Entering week six, the net is down 14 percent among the coveted 18-to-49 demo and has already canceled The Playboy Club and the Hank Azaria comedy Free Agents (see page 16). Most will give Greenblatt a free pass this time around because he wasn’t at the network when the bulk of its projects were initially ordered. And he has made it clear to his Comcast bosses that NBC will need to cough up big bucks to rebuild the network.
“Bob is buying top-dollar projects from top writers,” says one gleeful agent, who notes that NBC has been shying away from smaller, quieter ideas in favor of noisier fare a la The Munsters remake or Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio‘s drama Blue Tilt that can help cut through the clutter. Says the agent, “He’s in last place and pushing to get out on the backs of [projects from Glee showrunner] Ryan Murphy, [Rescue Me showrunner] Peter Tolan, J.J. Abrams, etc.”
The TV biz is now anticipating which of the many projects will make it to pilot. More stable networks like CBS are clear on what they want — and what they don’t want — but NBC so far has been open to hearing pitches of all genres.
“This is the first year in a long, long time where there haven’t been any caveats. We’ve actually been able to follow the culture as opposed to the mandate,” says a producer, adding that there was a lot of ” ‘We don’t do this’ and ‘We don’t do that’ with the previous regime.”
“The messaging from NBC is, ‘Just bring us really great stuff and we’ll know it when we see it,’ ” adds another agent, who suggests it’s a strategy more common of premium cable networks like HBO or Greenblatt’s former home.
The result has been a particularly diverse slate that doesn’t necessarily “fit” with what people might associate with NBC, one source says. For instance, Greenblatt is developing a wrestling drama from Jerry Bruckheimer, a high-concept crime show from Greg Berlanti, a legal series from Steven Bochco and David Milch, a blended gay family comedy from Murphy, a karaoke comedy from The Voice coach Adam Levine and a White House comedy from Book of Mormon star Josh Gad, among many others.
Adds another producer, only half kidding, “Everyone we talk to has sold something to NBC.”
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