NBC Chief Bob Greenblatt: 'There's Still Room for Improvement'

Lacey Rose
NBC Chief Bob Greenblatt: 'There's Still Room for Improvement'

“There’s still room for improvement.”

To hear NBC entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt tell it, it is not only a theme in his own life – his father used to say it when a young Greenblatt would bring home a report card featuring several A’s and a solo B+ -- but also the mantra of his network. He noted during his turn before the Television Critics Association Saturday morning that the most recent TV season was one of “real progress,” without suggesting his work at NBC was anywhere near done.

Relying on a string of power point stats to drive home his message, Greenblatt noted that his network was flat while his rivals’ were all down in the ratings. “And at this point in our business, flat is the new up,” he quipped to laughs in the Beverly Hilton ballroom, adding that NBC rounded out the season within one tenth of a ratings point of No. 2 and fourth tenths away from No. 1. On at least two occasions during his half hour or so before the assembled press, he noted that broadcast networks tend to shed between four and seven percent of its viewership from year to year.

Greenblatt was joined on stage by entertainment president Jennifer Salke and alternative and late night chief Paul Telegdy to field a barrage of questions focused on such things as the late night shakeup, broadcast drama’s Emmy shutout and the disappointment of this year’s comedy crop. Here are the highlights.

The Late Night Switch-A-Roo

Jay Leno may be on his way out at the Tonight Show, but Greenblatt insists he is very hopeful that the veteran late night ratings champ stays in the NBC fold. In fact, he hinted at a couple of potential opportunities that his team and Leno were currently discussing at the network, but declined to go into further detail. As for the decision to push him out early next year, Greenblatt acknowledged that he has been having conversations about a late night transition ever since he took the gig in early 2011. Doing so with the winter Olympics as a launch platform for Jimmy Fallon was a once-every-four-year opportunity that he believed was to good to pass up. 

No Laughing Matter

“Comedy is frustrating,” noted Greenblatt, when pressed on the disappointing track record for the network’s freshman crop of half-hours, including The New Normal and Go On. Like her boss, Salke added that the time available to nurture a show has grown shorter and shorter, forcing her and her team to have to make difficult decisions far earlier than they would like. Of New Normal’s early demise, Greenblatt suggests that he has no regrets about airing the series, about a gay couple having a baby via a surrogate, when he did. “I don’t believe it didn’t work because it had gay characters in it. We think the country is moving in the right direction, the Supreme Court made the right decision,” he said, adding: “It may have been slightly ahead of its time.” Neither he nor Salke are at all concerned about embracing enough gay storyline on upcoming comedy Sean Hayes Saves the World, noting that this show isn’t as “issue-oriented” as the Ryan Murphy half hour.

Where is the Love?

“The bastard child is now broadcast television,” Greenblatt said of a belief that he feels has permeated the industry, which was reflected in the lack of broadcast dramas nominated for Emmys this year. Parenthood, for instance, is a series that he argues would have been very deserving. “I wish it had more acclaim,” he noted of the ensemble drama, acknowledging that the most recent season, which featured a heartbreaking cancer storyline, was particularly strong. He also used the opportunity to defend the larger broadcast genre, noting that he doesn’t “think that there’s inferior [on broadcast] product or [he] wouldn’t have taken this job.” Like his peers at other broadcast nets, he said that the cable “hits” that tend to generate outsized ink -- think HBO’s Girls -- often would be canceled on a broadcast network. (AMC’s red-hot Walking Dead, however, is the “anomaly.”) 

Events, Events, Events

Greenblatt was not shy about his desire to be in the “events” business in a major way, whether that be through sporting events, late night shows, specials or high profile series (think Michael J. Fox coming back to comedy). In his bid to “fight the DVR,” those events will also include a growing collection of limited series and miniseries, for which the network just poached ABC’s Quinn Taylor to oversee. Greenblatt used the TCA platform to announce four new projects in that area, including a four-hour Hillary Clinton mini starring Diane Lane (the former President has not been cast yet) as well as a Rosemary’s Baby remake, an adaptation of Stephen King’s Tommyknockers and Plymouth from Mark Burnett. (They will join a Cleopatra project as well as Burnett’s follow up on The Bible.)

Trump Will Be Trump

Telegdy is not ready to announce another season of The Donald’s reality show, Celebrity Apprentice, but he suggested that that decision will be made with ratings --and not Trump’s outspoken persona—in mind. And while the reality honcho acknowledged that this country is predicated on “free speech,” he suggests Trump’s opinions don’t reflect those of the executives at NBC, adding: “He’s in the business of creating his own headlines.”

Saturday Night Live Will Live On

Was Greenblatt pleased with the latest talent exodus at NBC’s long-running sketch show? Absolutely not. But he insists there is nobody better at “combing this country and finding the next generation of these actors than Lorne [Michaels.]” He noted that Michaels, who will also add The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon to his already full plate early next year, is already hunkered down and doing the job.