At press tours past, NBC executives have set new records for the amount of lipstick one can apply to a pig. Season after season, press tour after press tour, NBC’s ratings dipped, but Jeff Zucker and then his various lieutenants found one way or another to come out and – usually with the help of bar graphs and eight dozen press releases – suggest that things were much better than we all thought, and that the Peacock was a half-step away from relevance again.
Friday morning at the tour, Robert Greenblatt came out and called the pig a pig.
“We had a really bad fall,” he said without hesitation or embarrassment.
He added that the fall – in which “Playboy Club” and “Free Agents” were two of the first three new shows canceled, and in which all of NBC’s shows have been down significantly in the ratings, especially relative hits like “The Office” and “The Biggest Loser” – had been “worse than I’d hoped for, but actually about what I’d expected. 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 we have to be to get there.”
And that was the tenor of the next 45 minutes of Q&A, in which Greenblatt acknowledged over and over what a tough job he had – and particularly in comparison to his previous gig running Showtime.
“At Showtime, Prime Suspect would have been picked up after the 3rd episode, declared a hit and been on the air 4 or 5 years,” he said of yet another fall failure.
Of course, on Showtime, Greenblatt could program for niches and find shows that could survive on a million viewers if they were the right million viewers. At an ad-supported network like NBC, bigger audiences are necessary.
“You can program for 18 year old twins and get a hit show on a cable network,” he said. “We have to figure out how to seize on that and yet not end up in the narrow place.”
Take “Community,” which aired its last regularly-scheduled episode last night. Though Greenblatt insisted that the show isn’t canceled and would return later in the spring on a night and time to be determined (though likely not leading off a night again), that wasn’t so much news as Greenblatt clarifying something that was only implied when “Community” wasn’t mentioned at all in the mid-season press release. The show’s future for a fourth season is very much up in the air – when I asked him about it, he said, “I don’t know. Those are really hard questions to answer right now.” – because, despite its cable-esque levels of adulation, its overall ratings have been terrible for a while now.
“That’s been the good news and bad news of ‘Community,'” Greenblatt said. “It has such a strong core audience, and yet it’s been hard to expand that audience.”
Eventually, Greenblatt realized he was talking so much about cable – including a plan to give “Smash” a “cable-like launch” by sneak previewing the pilot across various Comcast platforms before it premieres on NBC on February 6 – that he joked, “the subhed for my comments will be ‘The beauty of cable,’ which is not good. No, it’s a dying business and ruining our culture!”
And by being blunt at the beginning, Greenblatt then gave himself license to be optimistic in his pragmatism.
Greenblatt has high hopes for “Smash,” a new musical drama starring Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston and Katharine McPhee, but he acknowledged it’s not a “make or break show for us.” The old cliche used to be that a network only needed one new hit to turn itself around, but he said that for NBC, especially in this day and age, “You need four or five shows to start to turn things around. ‘Smash’ could be one of those. I hope it is one of those. But if it isn’t? It’s not like we’re going to go into receivership.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org