"Smash" with Katharine McPhee has been a major disappointment… (Will Hart / NBC )
This winter, NBC has learned the hard way just how fleeting victory can be.
The network had its best fall in years. The new prime-time lineup got a welcome push from the Summer Olympics in London. The post-apocalyptic drama "Revolution" was a surprise hit after "The Voice," the singing contest that has turned into NBC's main entertainment draw. NFL games reigned supreme on Sundays. Mired in fourth place for years, NBC suddenly found itself No. 1 — a position it hadn't regularly seen in nearly a decade.
Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt, a former producer and Showtime boss hailed as the mastermind of NBC's turnaround, was confident enough to take a swipe at a rival network chief during a presentation to reporters last month. He exulted that in reengineering NBC, he was following the old mantra of 1980s programming legend Grant Tinker: "First, be best; then, be first."
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And then, as these winter weeks have dragged on, the victory pedestal has come crashing down.
The Broadway drama "Smash" — Greenblatt's pet project — bombed on its return, with low ratings that shocked even TV veterans. The medical thriller "Do No Harm" posted the worst numbers ever for a new network drama. Football is gone until fall, and "The Voice" and "Revolution" won't be back until next month. Even "30 Rock" — the sitcom that drew critical raves but not high ratings — wrapped up its run.
Things have sunk so low that for the first time ever, NBC finished the February "sweeps" period — which local stations use to help determine ad rates — in fifth place, behind CBS, Fox, ABC and Spanish-language Univision. Its top-rated entertainment show is "The Biggest Loser" – at No. 35.
"I hate to say it, but they're in trouble," said Gary Carr, senior vice president at the media agency TargetCast. "Nothing's really held. Go night by night, and they don't really have anything" that's performing well.
What's more, he added, "they don't seem to have a whole lot of great shows coming down the line."
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The situation casts a dark cloud over the tenure of Greenblatt, who was brought aboard two years ago by the network's parent, the cable giant Comcast. His stewardship of Showtime had led to a number of shows that drew critical praise and pop-culture buzz, including "Weeds," a dark comedy about a pot-dealing mom, and "Dexter," about a vigilante serial killer.
Although few TV veterans believe Greenblatt's job is in imminent jeopardy, his future will likely depend on the programs he develops for this fall. NBC has ordered 11 drama and 17 comedy pilots — a higher total than any other network — in a sign that it's ramping up efforts to find new hits. By comparison, CBS, the most-watched network, has ordered 24 pilots — evenly divided between drama and comedy — with network boss Leslie Moonves already indicating that very few of those will make it to the schedule presented to advertisers in May. NBC, however, is likely to have far more holes in its schedule that need to be plugged with new material.
NBC executives declined to comment on the record for this story.
In fairness, no broadcaster has been on a tear this season. The fall lineups have yet to produce any runaway hits, and every network except CBS is down among total viewers compared with last year. Fox has shrunk a whopping 23%, due largely to poorer-than-expected showings for its singing shows "The X Factor" and "American Idol."
But the situation is more critical for NBC because it has been in the ratings cellar for so long. The network needs to prove to viewers as well as advertisers that it can still lure big audiences.
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"It seems more catastrophic than it is, because they don't have hits around them," said Chet Fenster, managing partner of MEC Entertainment.
Much of the problem, analysts agree, stems from the fact that NBC hasn't been able to find anything that works beyond football and "The Voice" — which both happen to be programs that can run for only part of the season. Executives were also reluctant to try scheduling "Revolution" without using "Voice" as a big lead-in. So, given that it was without its three biggest shows, it was inevitable that NBC would face a harsh winter.
However, there may be glimmers of hope on the horizon.
The approach of summer means the return of "America's Got Talent," which has traditionally been a strong ratings performer for NBC. Next January, the network will have the Winter Olympics, and in 2015 it will carry the Super Bowl — so it will not have to endure a winter like this again anytime soon.
In the meantime, there's always the hope that the new fall lineup will produce that one smash hit that will make everyone forget about this winter.
"We know that hit shows can turn around a network," Fenster said. "We've seen it time and time again."
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