NBC Rumors Swirl as Jennifer Salke Re-Ups Deal
The top network desperately seeks scripted hits.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The news that NBC is renewing Jennifer Salke's contract into 2017 as the network's entertainment president came as a surprise to many in the television industry.
On-again, off-again rumors that Salke, 50, would leave to run the 20th Century Fox television studio had been on again during recent weeks, accompanied by speculation that her contract would not be renewed because NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke lacks confidence in her. Despite an overall improvement in performance, NBC has struggled to find success with scripted programming this season, with recent flops including The Slap and Allegiance.
Speculation also had centered on the longevity of NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, whose contract runs through 2017. Sources inside and outside the network have been saying Greenblatt had seemed disenchanted since his longtime PR man, Richard Licata, stepped down in October. Following Licata's exit, mid-level executives said Greenblatt seemed less engaged than the hard-working, detail-oriented executive had been in the past.
At the time of his departure, Licata said he was seeking a new challenge, also citing the death of his father as a motivating factor. But according to sources, NBCU had hired an outside law firm to conduct an inquiry into allegations of harassment by Licata. NBCU declined comment. Licata also declined comment.
Greenblatt had been so fiercely loyal to Licata that when there was a move to oust the PR man while both worked at Showtime, Greenblatt threatened to quit. His bosses at CBS backed down. But NBCU is said to have been adamant. Now, with Salke, sources believe Greenblatt would not accept the loss of a second key member of his team. "He likes to be close friends with the people he works with," says an executive who works with Greenblatt.
A high-level NBCU insider says Burke is supportive of Greenblatt and "would never step in to prevent Bob from renewing somebody," though he might convey his opinion. While Greenblatt has a reputation as a workaholic who usually reads every iteration of a script, Salke has not been seen as especially focused. A 2013 interview with her friend Rachel Zoe opened the door to mockery when Salke confided that she believes in ghosts and has been "very hands-on helping deliver my friends' babies."
But Salke is seen as being strong in her handling of top talent. Dick Wolf, whose company provides NBC Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and Law & Order: SVU, says Salke is his "go-to person" in managing turf battles within the network. "All I can say is this team works very well for me," he says. "Bob doesn't want to see me on his call sheet. Jen is the one person that I can talk to — I know the information will get to Bob unedited. She solves a lot of problems for me on a weekly basis."
NBC is the top-rated broadcast network for the 2014-15 TV season, a ranking it also boasted last season. But that comes with little help from scripted series. Aside from the boost from airing Super Bowl XLIX, the network has stayed on top largely thanks to Sunday Night Football and more than 80 hours of The Voice each season. The Blacklist is NBC's lone scripted show among broadcast's top 25, but its recent move to Thursday has seen live viewership plummet to series lows.
"They're struggling to maintain the ratings they had a year ago," says Sam Armando, director of strategic intelligence at SMG. While some success in scripted programming would be very welcome, he says just one hit would make all the difference. And after frequent management changes at the network, "a sense of stability is a good thing."
This season, new shows underperformed on all fronts. Comedies A to Z and Bad Judge have been canceled, Marry Me and State of Affairs have had middling runs, and midseason saw Allegiance limp out of the gate despite its Blacklist lead-in. The Slap's failure is even more dramatic given the star power of Peter Sarsgaard and Uma Thurman.
Each of the other big broadcast networks has launched a new series that has been renewed, led by Fox smash Empire. ABC has How to Get Away With Murder, CBS has NCIS: New Orleans and The CW has The Flash. NBC has yet to renew any of its new shows.
Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's A.D.: The Bible Continues, a follow-up to their record-breaking History Channel miniseries, joins the schedule April 5, but at 12 hours, with admittedly limited source material, it's a one-off.
"This past fall has been disappointing," Salke acknowledges. "I'm looking forward and feeling like I don't want to leave this job until I win. I love this job, I love the people and I love challenges."
Given the demands of Salke's job, some insiders say they're surprised she chose to remain at NBC rather than take a top studio job at Fox, assuming one was offered. But one associate says such a move would have been seen as a demotion. "If you're ambitious," says this person, "you don't leave the presidency of a network to run a studio — unless you've been iced."