NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt, who came to the network… (Fred Prouser / Reuters )
As the broadcasters rush to unveil their fall lineups to advertisers next week in New York, no network has more riding on the outcome than NBC.
The brand that dominated TV for 20 years starting in the mid-1980s with smash hits such as "The Cosby Show," then "Friends" and "Seinfeld" has spent the last six years stuck in last place as its managers pursued what they believed was a forward-looking strategy aimed at cutting costs. Now the network has a new owner — cable giant Comcast — and a much-admired new programmer — Bob Greenblatt, formerly of Showtime — who are bent on restoring the luster of a network that once set standards for both quality and ratings in prime time.
With Greenblatt at the helm, the network is trying to lure the same upscale, educated young audience it once had a lock on. NBC has ordered "Smash," a musical comedy set on Broadway, which is earning comparisons with Fox's hit "Glee," that stars Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston and is produced by Steven Spielberg. It also picked up "Prime Suspect," an update of the classy British detective series with Helen Mirren that ran on PBS (Maria Bello will play the lead), as well as comedies with Christina Applegate and Whitney Cummings.
The stakes could not be higher: According to research firm SNL Kagan, NBC, a one-time cash cow, lost nearly $81 million in 2010, compared with a $14-million profit the previous year and a $204-million profit in 2008 (the data include only results from network operations, not company-owned and –operated local TV stations). Now analysts and talent representatives are hailing NBC — which will be the first network to greet advertisers Monday morning — for a return to form.
The "bigger emphasis on scripted series" is a good move, according to Shari Anne Brill, a longtime New York-based programming analyst. "That was what kept NBC strong, that was what made the network No. 1. It's not 'Fear Factor,' 'Minute to Win It' and 'Biggest Loser.'" (Through a spokeswoman, NBC said Greenblatt was not available to comment for this article.)
Like many creative people in Hollywood, Brill was especially dismissive of the strategy under previous NBC boss Jeff Zucker of "managing for margins, not ratings" — that is, making programming decisions based on profitability, with little regard for a show's popularity. "That's not how you run a network," Brill said. "You might want to do that when you're ordering office supplies."
Of course, NBC is not the only network under the gun next week. ABC has also endured some rough seasons recently, with Entertainment President Paul Lee facing pressure to come up with new hits that can replace aging series such as "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy." Among its top drama prospects are "Pan Am," a 1960s throwback a la "Mad Men," and a reboot of "Charlie's Angels," the Aaron Spelling-produced 1970s crime drama.
Fox, which is expected to put Simon Cowell's "The X Factor" on the fall schedule and renew "American Idol" for next winter, has relatively few holes in the lineup. But this week the network canceled a number of marginal current shows, including "Lie to Me" and "Chicago Code," and ordered "The New Girl," a comedy with Zooey Deschanel, as well as a spinoff of its cult crime show, "Bones."
At No. 1 network CBS, meanwhile, the biggest question is what to do about "Two and a Half Men," TV's most-watched comedy, which was sent reeling after star Charlie Sheen engaged in a series of high-profile escapades, vilified his bosses and was eventually fired earlier this year. Rumors surfaced this week that the producers had unsuccessfully wooed British movie star Hugh Grant as a replacement. No other names have surfaced publicly, but the cost of inaction would be high: Ratings for CBS' Monday lineup have stumbled as "Men" has gone into permanent repeats.
But such a problem would likely seem a luxury for Greenblatt and his programming team. NBC has not delivered a flat-out hit in scripted programming in years, probably since the first season of "Heroes" nearly five years ago — an eternity by prime-time standards.
To correct that will take patience and many more at-bats. The numbers tell the story: NBC ordered 22 scripted pilots this year, compared with 20 last year and just 12 in 2009, when it embarked on an ill-fated experiment to bring Jay Leno to prime time. One talent representative who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing relationships with network executives said it could take NBC three to five years to become competitive again.
One immediate dilemma: What to do about "The Voice." The singing contest — which was greenlighted by the previous NBC regime — has scored strong ratings in its first three weeks, and NBC announced Thursday that it would feature expanded episodes next month. The temptation is to use it for fall, possibly on Mondays and Tuesdays, where NBC can use all the help it can get. But with Fox's similarly themed "X Factor" on tap, "The Voice" could wear out quickly. Also, relying so heavily on another reality show might not make it any easier for NBC to reestablish itself as a go-to destination for great dramas.
But many industry veterans predict Greenblatt has as good a shot as anyone of succeeding. "He's trying to upscale" the network, said one TV agent. "He's smart, he's got good contacts and great taste."