NBC's 'Smash' Gamble: How the Network is Spending Big to Lure Viewers

2012-05 REP Smash Cast Bob Greenblatt Katharine McPhee Anjelica Huston Debra Messing H
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

From left: Bob Greenblatt and castmembers Katharine McPhee, Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing attend "Smash's" world premiere at New York's Met museum.

UPDATED: Budget-busting marketing counters fears that a Broadway drama might be too niche for mainstream TV.

Beer-guzzling NFL fans might have been a tad confused when they tuned in to Sunday Night Football in recent weeks and saw promo after promo for NBC's Broadway-themed drama Smash.

Off-brand as they might seem, the football plugs are part of a massive marketing and publicity push for the series about the making of a Marilyn Monroe stage musical. Smash, which premieres Feb. 6, is being peddled everywhere from art museums to macho sporting events to such male-dominated TV hubs as Golf Channel and G4. In fact, NBC chief Bob Greenblatt, eager for his first scripted success, has spent a surprising sum on off-network promotions for the Debra Messing-Katharine McPhee drama.

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Although one well-placed source pegs the spend at about $22 million -- double what premium cable networks typically allocate to promote a new series -- NBC Entertainment marketing president Len Fogge, who followed Greenblatt from Showtime, vehemently refutes that figure, placing it at less than $10 million. "We've been very strategic in how we've spent the marketing dollars," he tells THR, suggesting the Smash budget is below the high-water mark spent on heavily hyped 2010 flop The Event. "What I'm hoping is that our less-than-$10 million campaign, plus the NBC assets that have really stepped up to support us … feels like a much bigger campaign. We're trying to make noise."

The marketing deluge, which many describe as an "all-in" mentality at the network, has stretched to every corner of the Comcast universe, with promos appearing on Bravo, Oxygen and E! and the pilot available for free streaming on Comcast's digital platforms as well as iTunes, American Airlines flights and such sites as RyanSeacrest.com and Hulu. In addition to elaborate, cable-style publicity materials, screening events have taken place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And the show will be featured on TV's biggest stage: NBC's coverage of Feb. 5's Super Bowl. (While they're not performing, McPhee and co-star Megan Hilty will be in Indianapolis for events and photo ops.)

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The high-priced rollout flies in the face of industry fears that the series could be too niche to attract the kind of broad audience that traditionally fuels network hits, a characteristic that proved the downfall of Fox's Lone Star and NBC's Prime Suspect.

"NBC's massive push may get eyeballs to the premiere, and it may do a respectable number, but I don't think it will be the hit they're looking for," says Linda Ong, president and founder of New York-based marketing and branding company Truth Consulting, whose clients have included USA, Bravo and History.

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Greenblatt acknowledged the concerns last summer when he told reporters that Smash "may be the most adventurous show that we do, and it ultimately may be the most narrow show we do." He also has noted that it will take more than one hit to get NBC out of the ratings basement, where the network has lived for more than half a decade.

To date, critical buzz for the Steven Spielberg-produced drama has been high, with THR critic Tim Goodman calling Smash "excellent, a bar-raiser for broadcast networks." Others talk of the series' awards potential, something that has remained largely the domain of cable in recent years, and its potential to draw the educated, upscale, urban viewers that defined NBC during its "must see" years.

"I'd say the 1990s equivalent of the Smash audience might be the Frasier audience, and I don't think there is anyone at NBC that wouldn't say, 'Where do we sign up for that?' " says Warren Littlefield, former NBC chief and author of the upcoming book Top of the Rock. "These days, broadcast television is looking more and more closely at the success of cable and some of the unique worlds that cable goes into and saying, 'We'll take a loyal following if it's the right following.'"

Still, expensive production numbers have pushed the per-episode cost of Smash to about $3.5 million, say sources, more than most first season broadcast dramas (and roughly on par with Glee). Observers suggest Smash needs a 3 rating -- if not slightly higher -- in the 18-to-49 demo to recoup its cost in ad revenue. NBC is averaging a 1.8 rating in the demo (5.9 million viewers) during the 10 p.m. slot Monday through Friday; the only two NBC series to average a 3 or higher this season are reality reboot Fear Factor and the long-running The Office. Madison Avenue has been optimistic, shelling out $155,000 for 30-second spots -- one of the highest rates for a freshman drama -- during the upfront selling period.

Working in Smash's favor is lead-in The Voice, which was granted the coveted post-Super Bowl spot. While NBC sources suggest internal expectations for the breakout singing competition are being lowered due to the recent ratings stumbles of The X Factor and American Idol, few doubt Voice finally will give NBC a series in the top 30, and likely in the top 10, this season. Will it lift Smash in the process?

Greenblatt is tempering expectations. "I don't believe it is a make-or-break kind of show for us," he told reporters in January. "If it isn't [a hit], it's not like we're going to go into receivership."