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The following article appears in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter on newsstands now. Subscribers can read the magazine online.
If NBC’s new entertainment president Robert Greenblatt hasn’t already seen The Thin Red Line, he ought to rent it. And pay particular attention to Sean Penn’s jaded soldier, who says to a newbie: “What difference do you think you can make, one man in all this madness?”
Of course, running a broadcast network isn’t like being in a war. Unless, perhaps, running a broadcast network is your livelihood and the one you’re running is NBC. There must be something in Greenblatt’s DNA that makes him want to take on problems that others consider disastrously unsolvable. Because the challenge that lies ahead for Greenblatt as he seeks to reverse NBC’s long, sad, decline, is enormous, difficult and has no easy fixes.
He’s got a fourth-place network in a five network race, if you consider the CW a network at all. NBC has been the butt of more jokes than the last three presidents combined. There appears to be no grand plan in place. The brand has been diluted to the point where the cable components of the NBCUniversal deal that Comcast bought into were the real gems while the network seemed like a toss-in. And there is, unquestionably, institutional morass.
That said, Greenblatt reversed Showtime’s fortunes both impressively and quickly. He had a vision for the pay cable channel – steering it away from original movies and toward original series. That was the easy part. What merits praise is the way he went about it – landing big stars to practice their craft in ambitious, risk-taking premises. Mary-Louise Parker, Michael C. Hall, Edie Falco, David Duchovny, Toni Collette and Laura Linney all brought gravitas – and subscribers – to the channel in their critically acclaimed roles and series.
Having accomplished what he wanted at Showtime, Greenblatt turns his attention to the ultimate reclamation project – NBC. While there are any number of reasons why this was a risky choice, there’s certainly one great reason to take it on: If he succeeds, he’s going to be the king of the television industry. Nobody has truly stepped up to take the crown away from Les Moonves at CBS – the last person to win a revolution.
Now that he’s finally able to get started at NBC after a delay in having the deal approved by the Feds, here are some areas Greenblatt will need to address immediately:
Evaluating the infrastructure: Sounds boring, yes? But you can’t underestimate the damage that the Jeff Zucker Era had on the Peacock, even when he wasn’t the entertainment president. From orchestrating the Kevin Reilly ouster and the Ben Silverman coronation to taking scripted off of 10 p.m. to the Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien debacles, his dirty fingerprints were everywhere. And the people who were doing his bidding – if they haven’t been dumped already – need to be evaluated. Somebody let Harry’s Law onto the schedule. A collection of people are responsible for one of the most buzz-free schedules in years. Were they working in fear? Or do they really have taste and a sense of quality? So many series, so many failures. Something’s wrong inside.
Reach out to the creative community (again) and tell them you want their best work to reinvigorate the brand: Greenblatt has already proven that he’s quite adept at this. The difference is that artistic ambition doesn’t always result in hits. Which brings us to the next area.
Find the creative balance between running what amounts to a boutique cable channel and the Walmart of big tent entities, a broadcast network: That means getting name stars, creators and writers involved so that The Biggest Loser isn’t the only thing you can brag about, but at the same time understanding that what they produce might not get half of Loser’s ratings. Getting the balance right is more magic than science. And any number of quality executives – from Peter Liguori to Doug Herzog to Peter Roth — have had trouble in the big leagues (if broadcast can, conceivably, still be called that). Reilly, at Fox, has probably had the best luck in that area and the jury will be out during Paul Lee’s tenure at ABC as well.
Define the brand: What is NBC anyway? Do people really think it’s the home of upscale single people who live in cities? What’s the identity here anymore? Big-eyed flops like The Event and The Cape? Aging franchises like Law & Order? Cult comedies? Spark-free reality series? It’s nice that Parenthood is still being given a chance, to say nothing of Chuck or much of the Thursday night line-up, but at some point you need series that define the brand in other ways than “supporting the underachievers.”
Have patience where needed: The comedies might not be dominating the ratings, but there’s gold in Community, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation. There might be life left in The Office, but Steve Carell leaving doesn’t help anything.
Make haste, make change: True, it won’t be your stamp on NBC until next fall, or maybe even midseason. But that comes along awfully fast. And you’ll have to do your best to sell talented people that NBC is going to turn around. You’ve got real questions about seminal shows – the Law & Order franchise, The Office, Dateline, The Apprentice. The people who love the Thursday night comedies might also love them on another night, perhaps. Freeing you up to make some money on Thursdays. And Sundays – wow. That’s a dirty garage.
But hey, you took the job. It’s time to push the rock. And – sincerely — good luck with that.
Email Tim Goodman at Tim.Goodman@THR.com
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