Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Entertainment Chief Extends NBC's Range

When Comcast bought NBC Universal, the TV rating and profit center was USA Network and not parent NBC...but by watering down USA and putting big bucks into NBC that may change!

Entertainment Chief Counts On 'Bigger, Louder, More Event-Like' Shows to Fuel Network's Revival

NBC's Bob Greenblatt NBC/Getty Images
Poring over scripts of NBC's new hit "The Blacklist" this past fall, the network's entertainment chief, Bob Greenblatt, huddled with the show's creative team to discuss its future. The fast-paced drama was at risk of burning out too quickly, he warned, and they needed to pace themselves by letting the characters' personal stories play out more. 

"The Blacklist" has become a centerpiece of Mr. Greenblatt's hard-fought turnaround of NBC, and keeping the show on the air as long as possible is a top priority. Alongside "The Voice" and Sunday Night Football, "The Blacklist" has helped propel the network, owned by Comcast Corp. CMCSA -0.94% , into the unusual position of leading the Big Four networks among the 18- to 49-year-olds that matter most to advertisers.

But it takes more than one new hit to turn around a broadcast network, especially one that has been in the doldrums for most of a decade. Now Mr. Greenblatt faces the task of building on his momentum. He has made similar headway before, only to see it, in his words, "all go down the toilet."
"There are days when I say: 'Does it have to be this difficult to get one good show?' " says Mr. Greenblatt, who describes NBC's condition when he arrived three years ago as a "patient lying down and the blood has stopped flowing."

"Every year I want to feel we're a little bit further ahead, and we're starting to feel that—but there's still a lot of work ahead of us," he says, seated in a spotless corner office dotted with framed photos of his beloved late Doberman and a who's who of celebrities.

To that end, Mr. Greenblatt has been rolling out an especially aggressive slate of new scripted series since the start of the year. Among them are two dramas that were scheduled to premiere Sunday night to fill the void left by the seasonal absence of Sunday Night Football. "Crisis," a hijack drama starring Gillian Anderson, will air back to back with the supernatural thriller "Believe," from Hollywood directors Alfonso Cuarón and J.J. Abrams.
Last month, fueled by the promotional energy of the Winter Olympics, which NBC aired, Mr. Greenblatt launched a new Tuesday comedy block of "About a Boy," based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, and "Growing Up Fisher," a Jason Bateman-narrated show about a divorced, blind father and his family.

"Prime time is a lot like building a house brick by brick," says NBCUniversal Chief Executive Steve Burke. "A lot of people said you don't have enough bricks when you're in fourth place to fix one night a year. But now I tell people NBC has the most upside of any business we have."

Scene from the supernatural thriller 'Believe' NBC
Brought in as part of Comcast's 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal, Mr. Greenblatt was given three to five years to fix the broadcast network. Despite the long odds of scoring a hit—most shows fail—the potential rewards were high. In its $30 billion takeover deal, Comcast put a value on NBC of just $1 billion, a fraction of the total. 

The 53-year-old Mr. Greenblatt is reimagining NBC's schedule amid intense turmoil in traditional television, particularly in broadcast. In recent years, cable channels ranging from HBO to FX and AMC have earned a reputation for well-written, edgy shows. Netflix Inc. NFLX +0.04% and other online rivals are following suit. 

For broadcast networks, the challenge is that their business model relies mostly on advertising, while cable channels—and online rivals such as Netflix—receive a steady stream of subscription fees, regardless of their audience size. While some shows like AMC's "The Walking Dead" draw higher ratings than broadcast shows, most don't. The average audience for a high-profile cable show like AMC's "Mad Men"—2.5 million—would have been too small for broadcast, executives say.

That reality is forcing broadcast television to balance the demands of viewers who have gotten used to more-sophisticated characters and story lines with the need to appeal to a broad audience. Another complication: broadcasters can no longer rely on reruns to fill prime-time hours, given the plethora of repeats online and on cable.
The hijack drama 'Crisis' NBC
Mr. Greenblatt's experience, in both broadcast and cable, helped him find an answer to that dilemma. The executive, born in Rockford, Ill., worked at the Fox network during its infancy, before moving to cable, most recently as president of entertainment at CBS Corp.'s CBS +0.17% Showtime Networks, where he remade the premium channel with a string of off-kilter hits like "Dexter" and "Weeds."

Compared with cable, Mr. Greenblatt says, broadcast TV is like "jumping onto a moving train and holding on for dear life with both hands." He says that suits him: "I love working: It's most of what I do in life. I don't have a family or a partner."

Flush with Comcast's cash, Mr. Greenblatt's mantra for developing new shows has been "bigger, louder and more event-like." He had a surprise hit early on with "The Voice," which cemented that strategy. 

Replacing much of the team he inherited, Mr. Greenblatt resolved to push NBC into new subject material, with attention-grabbing characters ordinarily found on cable. He took some big risks, some of which didn't pan out, like "Smash," about the making of a Broadway musical (a musical theater aficionado, Mr. Greenblatt has adorned his office with posters of old musicals and he produced the Broadway hit "9 to 5").
'The Blacklist' NBC
He had pockets of success with shows including "Chicago Fire," produced by Dick Wolf, and Friday night's "Grimm," and found his feet with two ambitious dramas, "Revolution" and "The Blacklist." 

"The first couple of years there was a certain amount of rooting around until we saw what worked," he says. But he adds: "It's a constant juggling of hours. Once you get one ball in place, the other two fall out of place." 

Borrowing from the cable model, Mr. Greenblatt is experimenting with different formats, including shows with shorter runs, such as a 12-episode miniseries "A.D.," a sequel to the popular History channel miniseries "The Bible." He also is teeing up live broadcasts like "Peter Pan," after the ratings success of last December's "The Sound of Music Live!" 

But he has yet to crack the toughest genre of all: comedy. "Parks and Recreation" and "Community" have been critical hits, but their audiences have been modest. Two efforts to change that—"The Michael J. Fox Show" and "Sean Saves the World"—missed the mark, although his latest two comedies have drawn solid ratings so far. 

While the smallest contributor to NBCUniversal profit, NBC is making progress financially. Although the recent ratings gains haven't filtered through yet, NBCUniversal's broadcast division posted operating cash flow of $345 million in 2013, compared with $118 million in 2010.

But NBCUniversal's Mr. Burke, who once ran ABC, says Mr. Greenblatt's turnaround will never really be over. "We have 22 hours in the broadcast schedule—it never stops."

Write to Merissa Marr at 

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