NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt Shares His Plan to Rebuild the Network (Exclusive Q&A)

Robert Greenblatt NBC Upfront 2011

In his first in-depth interview, the new programming chief tells THR he "would like to revive the brand that used to exist, which is innovative, fresh, bold, original, upscale and groundbreaking at times."

When Robert Greenblatt took over as NBC’s chairman of entertainment in late January, many in Hollywood had high hopes for the executive who had previously transformed Showtime from an also-ran into a serious destination with shows like Dexter, Weeds and Nurse Jackie. Greenblatt, known for both his taste and his skilled handling of talent, has since settled into the job and unveiled his first fall schedule--a mix of ambitious dramas, populist comedies and supersized reality franchises--at the TV upfronts in May.

For his first in-depth interview since taking the job, the network’s new top programmer sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to share his plan for repairing the damaged network, as well as discuss the future of broadcasting and his hopes for his pet project, Smash, a series set behind the scenes on a Broadway musical, which premieres mid-season.  

What did you see in NBC?

It’s an enormous platform . . . It has this brand that has gone on for so many years [with] shows that I grew up watching that were very seminal, not only in my life but in our culture. It seemed like an exciting opportunity.

Did you hesitate about taking the job because the network was in bad shape?

I didn’t. I looked forward to it because of the challenge. I know that may sound counterintuitive but I’m not a good maintainer. I like to build or rebuild, brand or re-brand. It seemed like, what more interesting challenge could there be?

Did you seek specific assurances from NBC's new owner Comcast as to how much you could spend on development and marketing?

We never agreed on dollar figures. In my earliest conversations with [NBCU CEO Steve Burke], I was assured that he and Comcast would invest what they needed to invest to turn it around. They know you can’t reverse a slide like this by being conservative. They make big swings and they’re very astute dealmakers. They’re very thoughtful about looking at what needs to be done and then spending appropriately on things that work. They just bought out the Blackstone investment in our theme-park business. They’re very thoughtful, which is not a word you often use when talking about your bosses.

How did you find morale at the network when you arrived?

There had been a year of uncertainty as the regulatory process [dragged on], following several years of management changes every 18 months and lots of shifts in philosophy and personnel. Any kind of a change brings even more [uncertainty] and this was a seismic change. [But] I didn't encounter people with their heads down and shoulders slumped and overly depressed or anything. I think by the time I got here in January and they started to meet Steve Burke and [Comcast chairman and CEO] Brian Roberts, there was a pretty quick sense of "well, this could be good. This could be just what the doctor ordered."  

How long will it take to turn NBC around?

We're taking the long view because new management can afford to do that. When you're in as bad of shape as we are, to think it can be turned around quickly is foolish. I didn't come here under the guise that it could be turned around quickly. Steve Burke has been very vocal about it, saying it could take four to five years. And what does “turn around” even mean? Does that mean we're breaking even as opposed to losing money? A lot of things have to be rebuilt and we need time to try some things and fail and rethink.
Other than just hits, what’s not on NBC that you would would like to be there—a type of shows perhaps?

Without insulting the shows that have come before and not lasted, I just think we have to make better shows--scripted comedies, scripted dramas, reality shows. There’s a whole separate discussion we could have about the brand.

Is there an NBC brand?

I would like to revive the brand that used to exist, which is innovative, fresh, bold, original, upscale and groundbreaking at times. Look at E.R., Seinfeld or even Friends. You go back across the years and the shows were always trying something new and yet being broad. I’m a firm believer in moving around until you find exactly what the brand is supposed to be. That’s part of what takes time. You kind of have to muck around in it, which doesn’t sound very strategic or intelligent but it’s impossible to say, “Here’s what our brand is, let’s develop to it and let’s get these hits on,” because that’s not going to work. You need a sense of where you’re going, cover all your bases and then your brand will help dictate what it should be. Very unscientific but it works.

What’s the future of the broadcasting model?

The quick fix is to do something like put Jay Leno at 10 p.m. every night. If it had worked it would have been genius, but it didn't work. Unless we can come up with another game-changing, genius economic idea --believe me, we're rooting around for that--the only other option we have is to build a better mousetrap. It’s cliché but if we make hits and we own some of them, there’s still a really viable business to build. Then over the hill, the cavalry is coming with retrans [fees], which we look at as sort of found money. There are occasional off-net deals, which are a little bit of found money, a la Netflix or those kinds of things. But you have to spend — I don’t think you have to overspend, but you have to spend. And then you have to market these shows, and the marketing is as expensive as anything these days. But you have to, otherwise how do you ever hope to get any awareness?

I know it sounds a little bit like we drank the Kool-Aid, but the beauty of this company is that the cross-promotional stuff you can get when you’re deemed a priority is incredible. The stuff that USA does for us, and Oxygen and Bravo. Everyone was involved in helping to promote The Voice, and it really did help. Just before that, a similar initiative was put together for the movie Hop and it opened about 30 percent over expectations. We were promoting it on our air and so were the cable networks – it was a big priority. Steve Burke’s philosophy is every month or six weeks to have a company-wide priority that we all contribute to. For the fall, it will be the NBC fall schedule. Since the word “synergy” has such a negative connotation, Steve Burke has renamed it “Project Symphony.”

Is there room for a profitable fourth-place network?

To be fourth place, it’s hard to make money. Even if you’re third place. . . I'd like to lose less money than more. Any improvement is welcome. Psychologically it means a lot. Fourth place is hard to grapple with.

What are your expectations for the upcoming musical theater series, Smash?

I don’t honestly have a cohesive answer. I just think it’s exciting and it taps into a little of that wish fulfillment that some of these music reality shows tap into. . . I just go with my instincts and I think the audience is ready for something different.

What’s your response to the NBC affiliate in Utah saying that it won’t broadcast The Playboy Club this fall because the show is inconsistent with the network’s brand?

They have to do what they have to do. If I thought it was inappropriate to the brand, I wouldn’t put it on. This affiliate does not [carry] Saturday Night Live. It’s their prerogative to make decisions for their market. We feel confident that this is the only place reacting like this.

Email: Kim.masters@thr.com, Lacey.rose@thr.com
Twitter: @KimMasters, @LaceyVRose