Megan Hilty portrays Ivy Lynn, left, and Katharine McPhee portrays Karen… (Will Hart / Associated Press )
NBC is banking on a musical about a tragic icon for a reversal of its own misfortunes.
In its biggest gamble since betting on Jay Leno in prime time, NBC on Monday will debut "Smash," an ambitious drama about turning Marilyn Monroe's life into a Broadway musical with soaring song and dance numbers.
"Smash" has an all-star lineup in front of and behind the camera. It stars Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston and Katharine McPhee and was created by playwright Theresa Rebeck. Producers include Steven Spielberg, Tony Award-winning composer Marc Shaiman, and Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, producers of the Oscar-winning "Chicago."
PHOTOS: 'Smash' premiere
That level of talent and production hasn't come cheaply. The pilot for "Smash" cost more than $7 million to make, and subsequent episodes are running close to $4 million apiece, according to people with knowledge of the show who did not want to speak publicly on the subject.
"Smash" is a passion project for NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt, who took the top programming job at the network a little over a year ago. A lifelong theater aficionado, Greenblatt even took a breather from his then job as head of programming for Showtime in 2009 to put on a musical version of the movie "9 to 5" on Broadway.
"I didn't have time to make 'Smash' when I was at Showtime, so when I came to NBC, it's one of the first things I picked up," Greenblatt said last month at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena. "We are doing something very ambitious here, not only producing a musical every week but one that has original songs in addition to covers of well-known hits."
However, before Marilyn can find her way to the Great White Way, "Smash" has to open big on NBC.
That's no small task. The majority of NBC's new shows this season have flopped, including "The Playboy Club," "Prime Suspect" and, most recently, its version of the hit movie "The Firm." Take NBC's Sunday football out of the equation and its prime-time audience is about 5.7 million viewers, down 11% from last season, according to Nielsen.
"It's not pretty," Ethan Heftman, a senior vice president with Initiative, an advertising firm whose clients include Dr Pepper, said of NBC's performance over the last few years.
Ratings have gotten so low that a quick scan of a Nielsen chart reveals that outside of football, NBC has one show — "Harry's Law" — in the top-50 most-watched programs this season. Among adults in the 18-49 demographic coveted by advertisers, only two shows — "The Office" and "Fear Factor" — crack the top 50.
"People keep saying the only place we have to go is up, which I do believe is true, but there's a lot of work to do before we get there," Greenblatt recently told reporters.
"Smash," which will occupy the 10 p.m. slot, has good buzz from critics. While critical acclaim certainly helps, kind words are far from a guarantee of strong ratings, particularly for a show that was conceived with a cable sensibility. The NBC show will have to draw an audience far bigger on broadcast than required in the niche world of cable where even a viewership of several million can be considered a rousing success.
Compounding the problem are the networks' ongoing ratings woes. With a relatively low viewership, it may be difficult to lure in viewers to sample the show.
"If you are promoting yourself on your own network and few are watching, it is challenging," said Maureen Bosetti, an executive vice president at Optimedia, a firm that buys advertising for T-Mobile and Pizza Hut.
That's why NBC has launched a huge promotional campaign to hype "Smash" that goes far beyond plugs on the network, although there has certainly been no shortage of those during its lead-up coverage to Sunday's Super Bowl. In some big cities, it is hard to go a block without seeing an ad for "Smash."
"We've had the best care you could ever dream of having from a network," said Zadan.
There has been speculation in industry circles that the marketing campaign has topped $20 million, but Len Fogge, NBC's marketing chief, put the cost at less than $10 million.
NBC's need for a smash isn't lost on the show's producers.
"You can't help but acknowledge that the network is looking to resurrect itself, and there is an enormous amount of pressure to deliver a good show every week," said Meron.
No one can quibble with the production values behind "Smash," but how will a show about the theater world play in Peoria?
"Musicals have always been the bastard genre," Meron said, but he added that Fox's "Glee" has opened the door and shown they can work.
Initiative's Heftman agrees: "Everybody's been in a school play at one point in their lives. It is absolutely a relatable concept."