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Embattled NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt did not sugar coat the performance of the network he’s been entrusted to turn around.
“We had a really bad fall,” said Greenblatt, “worse than I had hoped for, but about what I expected.”
It was an opening salvo designed to disarm the room of reporters and critics gathered for NBC’s day at winter press tour in Pasadena.
Greenblatt, whose network so far this season has seen year-over-year double-digit declines even compared to last year’s dismal performance, cautioned patience.
“I know I’m a broken record. But I’m going to say it one more time: We have a long road ahead of us, so bear with me.”
But he also spread some blame on NBC’s aging hits.
“Our most recent scripted hit is six years old,” he said, presumably referring to Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, which has only been a modest ratings success though it has racked up copious awards and much positive ink. (Buoying the show’s future, NBC has quietly locked in Alec Baldwin for a seventh season.)
“One of our many challenges is that fact that we have few strong lead-ins,” observed Greenblatt.
Asked what he learned this fall, Greenblatt was rather philosophical: “There was no great revelation or shocking epiphany about fall expect it just [reinforced] how hard it is to break through.”
NBC has already cancelled three freshmen shows – Free Agents, The Playboy Club and Prime Suspect – and others, including Whitney and Up All Night, have so far failed to achieve hit status. But Greenblatt said the network is positive about both comedies and willing to give them more time to find audiences. And he explicitly stated that Community, which has a tiny but fervent following, has not been cancelled, though it is so far absent from NBC’s midseason lineup. (He would not go so far as to say that Community will get a fourth season pick-up, however.)
Greenblatt downplayed ratings expectations for midseason musical drama Smash, which premieres Monday, Feb 6 and will get one of the network’s “few and far between” lead-ins in The Voice. (The musical competition show will get the get the granddaddy of all lead-ins when it bows Feb. 5 after NBC’s broadcast of the Super Bowl.)
“I think that Smash is going to be very important to us,” said Greenblatt. “I don’t believe it’s a make or break show for us. I think we’re all proud of it and we’re excited to see what it can do. If I had a dime for every time someone said to me, ‘You just need one hit…’ I think in this day and age you need four or five shows to start to turn things around. Smash could be one of those. If it isn’t, it’s not like we’re going to go into receivership.”
Of course, in cable, one hit can make a network. And Greenblatt, who came to NBC Entertainment after a successful run at Showtime where he launched Dexter and Nurse Jackie, spent considerable time contrasting cable’s greener pastures to the hotly competitive environment of broadcast television where shows need to play broadly and programming decisions are ruled by the tyranny of minute-by-minute ratings.
“The beauty of cable is the ratings for a program really don’t correlate to the bottom line,” said Greenblatt. “At Showtime, Prime Suspect would have been picked up in the third episode, it would have been declared a hit and it would have been in production for four or five years.”
On broadcast, he continued, “You can’t be as cavalier about, ‘Oh we love the show. We’re just going to keep it on as long as we want.’ That’s the big dilemma that I’m in.”
But Greenblatt also said that his bosses at NBCUniversal and Comcast have given him a long leash in turning the network around.
“There’s no reticence on their part to do [what needs to be done],” said Greenblatt.
Additional highlights from Greenblatt’s panel:
On the addition of Howard Stern to America’s Got Talent: “Aside from his radio personality, he’s very intelligent and very thoughtful. He’s a huge fan of the show and he wants to be a very good judge. He takes it very seriously. I don’t think he has any plans to be the shock jock judge. He’s a big personality. What would American Idol be without Simon Cowell? I don’t think [Stern’s] plan is to usurp the show and make it the Howard Stern circus.”
On the future of Fear Factor, which was ordered last summer when the network was assembling stop-gap programming in the event of a torpedoed NFL season: “People like to see the snake cage and the swallowing of the bees. What can I say? We’re always happy to have those ratings. It’s [ a show] that will probably come and go [on the schedule] as needed.”
On Ryan Seacrest’s future at E! and speculation about him joining NBC’s Today: “We’d love to keep Ryan Seacrest in the family primarily because of E!. He’s got a huge presence on that network. And he’s become this incredible star. I think [Seacrest joining Today] is premature. It’s our hope and belief that Matt [Lauer] will stay on the show beyond his [current contract, which is up at the end of the year]. The priorities are Matt on the Today show and developing Ryan. If [Seacrest] said he waned to do interview specials a la Barbara Walters, I think that would be of interest to us. He’s a great asset to the company at large. And I hope we’re going to take advantage of that over the next few years.”
On Ricky Gervais’ return as host of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe telecast: “We love Ricky. We thought he did a great job [last year]. We can’t make a move on choosing a host without [the HFPA’s] support. I think unanimously they voted to bring him back. We’re happy about that. And we’re very excited to see what he does this year.”
- On the quickly cancelled Hank Azaria comedy Free Agents: “I’ll go on record stating I liked it. Am I surprised that it went down? I’m really not surprised about anything going down today.”
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