NBC's Bob Greenblatt: Don't Call the Morgue — Broadcast TV Is Doing Just Fine (Guest Column)

Broadcast_TV_Illo - THR - H 2017
Illustration by: Dan Woodger

Overnight ratings are the only "dinosaur" in TV, writes the network chairman, who reveals how time-shifted viewing and digital revenue are reinventing his business: "Our shows have a starting line but no finish line."

When I decided to leave Showtime seven years ago and move to NBC, a lot of people thought I was insane. Cable was on fire, Netflix had just launched a new streaming service, and Apple had just introduced the iPad. Meanwhile, a certain broadcast network was in last place for the 10th year in a row in a business that many assumed would soon be extinct.

Well, I'm happy to say, with a nod to Mark Twain, that the reports of the death of network television are greatly exaggerated. Things have changed dramatically since 2011, and broadcast television — with NBC No. 1 in the demo again — has changed along with it.

While broadcast TV may not be the zeitgeist business that digital technology is, the networks are stronger than ever due in part to the fact that we've embraced digital. In this new age of great content, powerful data and ubiquitous technology, we are far from wheezing dinosaurs on their way to extinction.

In fact, broadcast networks are uniquely positioned to capitalize on reach, scale and cultural impact. Many of our best moments come from broadcast: the biggest football games, Melissa McCarthy doing a mean Sean Spicer and the sensational Grace VanderWaal playing her ukulele on America's Got Talent.

True to our name, our goal isn't to just attract the most eyeballs to the linear network anymore but to bring content to a broader audience wherever, whenever and however they want to watch it. We've gone from being able to watch NBC content on one platform — live television — to more than 14 by the end of this year, whether that be on mobile, through a device like Chromecast or with a partner like Hulu.

It's meaningful — in the 35 days after an episode airs, delayed viewing in our key demo across these platforms on average now accounts for 52 percent of our viewing. And there's a wealth of audience beyond that 35 days. In this digital world, all of our shows have a starting line but no finish line.

Unfortunately, many still judge the success of a show or network based largely on "overnight" ratings. Well, I think it's time to apply the dinosaur analogy to the overnight rating rather than to network television itself. As an example, let's look at This Is Us, which is an unequivocal hit, even if we focus only on the premiere's 2.8 overnight rating in the demo. But that's not the whole story. Now that we can measure the audience on many platforms for months, we know the pilot of This Is Us has amassed a whopping 13.1 rating since premiering last September! That means more than 32 million total viewers have watched that episode alone.

A number like that rivals what our shows were getting in the heyday of NBC, which will probably surprise a lot of people. In 1994, for example, the ER pilot brought in a 12 rating in the demo. Yes, that happened all in one night, but there were only four networks and no way to watch it except the night it aired. (Oh, the good old days!) Back then, I don't think anyone could have predicted that the premiere of a new network drama 23 years later would attract a higher rating than ER.

I'm the first to admit that This Is Us is a unique example, and while the numbers may not be as dramatic when we look at other shows, the point still stands. The pilot of our freshman comedy The Good Place jumps from a 2.3 rating in live-plus-same-day to a 6.1 rating to-date; The Voice jumps from a 3.3 to a 5.5; and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit — a show that has been on for nearly 20 years — jumps more than three points from a 1.8 to a 5.4. (Ten years ago, in the 2006-07 season, SVU was averaging a point lower with a 4.6 rating.)

Of course, it's not just about tracking viewership, but also being able to monetize it wherever that happens. And every day we're getting smarter about how to do that. By leveraging sophisticated data and technology, we can target digital ads in a way that can be even more powerful than the previously assumed omnipotence of broadcast advertising — and at premium prices. Looking again at the pilot of This Is Us, one-third of all its revenue is coming from digital platforms. And in the case of The Good Place, delayed digital viewing represents 36 percent of our average revenue for the show.

As long as our business model continues to be healthy — and it is — what I care most about is reaching the audience, engaging viewers and hopefully moving them in some way. And nothing has a greater capacity to permeate people's lives and help drive our culture than broadcast television. The only thing heading to extinction is the overnight rating.

Bob Greenblatt is the chairman of NBC Entertainment.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.